The changing face of Cambodian leadership

The Kingdom’s future is in the hands of women and young people seeking opportunities amid longstanding obstacles to advancement and empowerment

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October 18, 2021
The changing face of Cambodian leadership
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, at a rally. Photo: supplied

Eight years since ascending into a leadership position with the most active human rights organisation in Cambodia, Chak Sopheap has never forgotten a debate she had with herself about whether she should accept the promotion. 

The story of a young, female leader would be an inspiration to an enthusiastic new generation, she reasoned. Her rise could show others it wasn’t the route of their success that mattered, but the challenges they overcame. 

Yet she also was aware that in a nation where the older establishment discourages youth and women from taking public roles, and young people help sustain a ‘culture of silence’ about politics, Sopheap and other activists face numerous obstacles. 

Today Sopheap is one of Cambodia’s prominent female leaders, but she is still challenged despite her abilities and high-ranking position with the Cambodia Center for Human Rights (CCHR). Even with their strong commitment and inspiration, youth and women need better opportunities to be represented, she said. 

“Difficult questions of gender and age came into play when I was promoted to the role of executive director,” Sopheap said. “Two barriers were very apparent: being a woman would present challenges in enduring leader transition and receiving acceptance, and the second barrier is being young would make it even more challenging to engage many stakeholders, including many male and senior leaders.”  

Women representation and participation in public and political life still remains low

During more than a decade of work at CCHR, Sopheap has seen and experienced a great deal of public activity and now keeps track of female and youth participation in leadership roles. She admires the increasing prominence of youth and women and believes they have become empowered to build an inclusive community through greater education and opportunities. 

“Women representation and participation in public and political life still remains low,” Sopheap said. “As for youth, they are very eager and enthusiastic to learn and contribute to meaningful change within their communities, despite the hardships some of them endure because of their activism.” 

Sopheap witnessed a series of arrests of activists, including a former CCHR director in 2005, that solidified her commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights. But the arrests of youth activists can challenge the willingness of young people to become involved in building their society.

In June 2021, the nation woke up to the news of three youth activists from Mother Nature Cambodia facing an accusation of plotting against the government. Their arrest signaled further deterioration in the country’s human rights situation, which already has a poor reputation in the international community. Public interest died down in the following months, but the case has remained a warning for youth activists.

Sopheap also finds Cambodian women remain underrepresented in politics. There are only two female provincial governors in Koh Kong and Pailin province as of this year. Until 2018, about 25% of Cambodia’s National Assembly and 19% of the Senate were women. In her experience, “misogyny and patriarchal norms” are major barriers to women succeeding.

“Women are primarily viewed as caregivers and struggle to make work/life balance, while society takes her less seriously than men when undertaking professional work,” Sopheap said. “These factors make the environment unfair for women’s participation in public and political spheres, while acting as a gatekeeping mechanism which ensures that men continue to occupy these spaces at far higher rates than women do.” 

Women pursuing higher positions face entrenched cultural norms and attitudes, including society’s tendency to not take women as seriously as men, Sopheap said. Cambodian society to some extent still conceptualises female behaviour based on stereotypes, what many call the ‘Code of Women’ (Chbab Srey). Partly based on poems written years ago by male intellectuals, the code dictates ways women should behave that violate and limit their modern rights. 

Chak Sopheap speaking to media. Photo: supplied

Fortunately, Sopheap isn’t the only one expressing concerns and speaking out about women’s roles in society. 

Transparency International Cambodia published “Leadership of Women and Youth in Cambodia,” an in-depth study of female and youth involvement in the public and political spheres in Cambodia. The March 2020 report found women and young people are underrepresented in leadership roles in Cambodia’s public and political spheres, despite making significant contributions. The study also focuses on outlining a more favourable environment and encouraging youth and female participation.

“The report’s main purpose was to identify major challenges that youth and women are facing,” Transparency International Citizens and Youth Empowerment Program manager Sdeung Phearong told the Globe.  

A female leader with several years of experience in gender and youth empowerment, Phearong said the key takeaways from the report are the barriers to youth and women’s leadership. 

“The report wants the public to take action and reduce these barriers,” Phearong said. 

With three data collection methods used from June 2019 to January 2020, the report includes more than 500 respondents from diverse backgrounds, including public and government officials. The study identifies several interconnected barriers to female leadership, including family burden, lack of encouragement, limited capacities and/or confidence, male dominance, physical health and discrimination. Stereotyping or social norms were identified as the most common hurdles for youth and female leadership.  

Stereotyping, family attitudes and society’s expectations divide careers by gender, linking women to more simple jobs, even though Transparency International found females bear many responsibilities beginning at a young age, often doing the same work as men or more, making them as tough as men.      

Unsurprisingly, most respondents agreed women do not receive enough encouragement from their families to pursue public activity. The caregiver role becomes an obstacle even for women who are already in leadership positions. The tendency to question women’s capacity, background and skills for female leadership appointments is common, whether in government or the corporate world, the study found. 

Sopheap and Phearong both said they experienced opposition when entering their leadership roles, which Phearong finds is a common, troubling situation in Cambodian society.

“I got challenges from colleagues when I first came to my current position,” Phearong said. “They questioned me if I had any help.”  

Sopheap said the internal debate about her role at CCHR included consideration of major challenges to ensuring a smooth leadership transition and receiving acceptance and respect within a male-dominated society. 

Being young didn’t improve the situation for Sopheap, who wasn’t the only one struggling with youth leadership. 

Transparency International found youth in Cambodia face similar patterns as those experienced by women, including family discouragement, limited space for freedom of expression and leadership, age discrimination, nepostism, employment constraint and limited knowledge of ‘soft skills’ necessary for success such as general communication, public speaking and debate, digital adaptation and team work.

Cambodia’s workforce has a large youth contingent, with 43% of employees between the ages of 15 and 29. Although these young people are not well represented among the Kingdom’s public and political leaders, the Kingdom’s youth have become actively engaged in these spheres. 

When youth are not engaged in politics, the other groups that are not youth create policies that only serve them

Ly Sreysrors has degrees in law and international relations and has gone on to become a social and political analyst, research consultant, university lecturer and democracy trainer. In June, German political foundation Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung named her one of Cambodia’s Young Leaders & Influencers.

Sreysrors is the current president of The Young Analyst, a political analysis group founded by renowned commentator Kem Ley, who was assassinated by a gunman in 2016 shortly after she joined the group when she was in her early 20s. Sreysrors sees the importance of youth and female representation.

“When youth are not engaged in politics, the other groups that are not youth create policies that only serve them. The world keeps upgrading and youth is the agent to upgrade their country,” Sreysrors said, noting the low number of female representatives in the upper ranks of government.

“Women and men have very different thinking and having women in high decision making and political participation is important in making policies. We have to make them accountable so that all people benefit from national policy.”

Challenging the traditional roles society imposes on women has been a primary focus for Sreysrors, who has found a “common discrimination” against women working in the male-dominated political establishment. She encouraged women to remain resilient from college through their professional lives.

“Keep going regardless of how old you are and dare to challenge people’s ideas and not use personal attacks,” she said, adding that she wants to see even greater commitment from young people and women. “Don’t attach too much to how the old perceptions affect you, but spend more time on how to overcome them.”

Ly Sreysrors, president of The Young Analyst group. Photo: supplied

A group called Politikoffee has been providing an open space for political discussion among young people since 2011. The unique weekly forum promotes a culture of debate and discussion, encouraging youth to challenge senior figures in politics. 

Ngel Sambath, who holds a senior position as a ‘fourth-generation leader’ with the group, immersed himself in politics through high school, even before the 2018 national election that pushed his commitment into activism. As a university political science student, he has observed that Cambodian youth often prefer not to discuss or debate important matters.

“We have the culture of not speaking up on political issues that result from history and fear that make people afraid to speak up,” Sambath said. 

In the classroom, debating and challenging ideas between students and educators is insufficient, while negative perceptions of politics persist in family life. This discourages students from talking freely, Sambath said.

Samoeurth Seavmeng is an inspired young woman who found her interest in politics when she first engaged with Politikoffee. When it comes to youth participation in politics, Seavmeng emphasised the importance of electing the right leader for the nation. 

“Youth need to be aware of what is happening in their country, understand their nation’s environment and politic so they could elect the right leader, otherwise the election will be meaningless,” Seavmeng said.

Seavmeng and Sambath said Politikoffee has encouraged them to pursue their own political activism projects. In recent years, more youth are attending political debates such as those hosted by the group as a way of challenging the culture of silence promoted by their families and older, establishment figures.

Sdeung Phearong, manager of Transparency International’s Citizens and Youth Empowerment Program. Photo: supplied

As the younger population comes to dominate the Kingdom, youth play an increasingly important role in shaping the country’s future. However, as Transparency International found, young people report their parents continue preventing their engagement in politics. A majority of respondents say they believe in youth leadership, but agree that systematic hierarchy and an ‘elders know better’ mindset are major obstacles to young people becoming leaders.

In a 2020 CCHR public poll, only 22% of respondents said they felt free to participate politically, which was the lowest percentage recorded in the last five years. Sopheap believes this resulted from a lack of female representation and restrictive, at times hostile, environments. 

A report by the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia found violence at the hands of men is also a major barrier to political participation by women. This includes physical and psychological abuse, sexual harassment and economic pressure.

In light of the evidence of youth and women struggling to take leadership roles, the reports put the government and political parties on notice about the important roles these two groups could play in future elections. 

“Our study encourages parents to change their mindsets, men to understand women, political parties to insert quotas for women’s positions and have a chance for them to speak,” Phearong of Transparency International said.

The Kingdom will have local elections next year, followed by the 2023 national election. Given the rise of youth and women committed to political participation, the elections could be heavily influenced by these groups as they seek prominent candidates who could make societal changes and project their voices. 

“Having a diverse representation within any democratic system is essential to a flourishing society and democracy,” Sopheap said.

This article is a part of an ongoing partnership with Transparency International Cambodia meant to accentuate issues along with practical solutions concerning good governance and anti-corruption in Cambodia. Learn more about the partnership here.

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