‘I Want to Be the One Who Can Make a Change in My Village’

The GDP's Sor Sarath speaks to party members in a photo posted to party leader Sam Inn's Facebook page on May 19.
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Kampong Tralach commune, Kampong Chhnang

Sor Sarath is the only top-ranked woman candidate for the Grassroots Democratic Party in the upcoming June 5 commune election. Sarath, 38, who is running for commune chief in Kampong Chhnang’s Kampong Tralach, said she was getting tired of not being taken seriously.

Sarath dropped out of school in Grade 9, partly due to difficult family living conditions, but also due to being surrounded by negative attitudes toward women pursuing higher education, she said.

“I stopped studying in 2001 because people, as well as society, have the perspective that there’s no point for women to get a good education,” Sarath said. “It’s not just me dropping out of school — there were a lot of other girls who did so.”

“They said that no matter how much education a woman got, she would still have to be a wife who is a cook at home.”

From 2012 to 2015, Sarath, a tailor and mother of three, worked for the commune as part of a team educating residents about ways to save money, and since 2018 has participated in the local fisheries commission.

The experiences not only gave her a taste of public service, but also showed her how public institutions and their officials had often become obstacles for village residents.

“They don’t accept us, they don’t listen to us, and give us no value when we talk about issues and want them to solve it. Instead, they allege that I’m in the opposition party.”

Sarath said that’s what helped push her to decide to be a candidate to make changes in her commune.

In the Grassroots Democratic Party — a minor party co-founded by agronomist Yang Saing Koma in 2015 — Sarath is the only top-ranked female commune candidate. The party is contesting 32 communes in 15 provinces, and 144 of 480 total candidates are women, or 30%. Lower-ranked candidates can fill commune councilor seats, but are not in line for chief. Many other parties have shown the same pattern: Few women are put forward for the top job; the higher the position, the worse the female representation.

Since standing as GDP’s female commune chief candidate, Sarath said the main issue she has faced was many men putting her down.

“They say I lack experience in the job, I don’t have the connections,” she said then laughed. “The men who said that to me are the villagers who are in the ruling party. They say such things to me from the beginning till now.”

But on the bright side, she has strong support from the villagers who are passionate about making changes in the commune, Sarath explained. And most importantly, her family is also staying by her side.

“They are encouraging me to stay in the first position. And what’s more is I want to be the one who can make a change in my village.”

Sarath has found that many women in her commune don’t get the support that she has received, whether in politics or daily life. In her district, most men farm, and most women work in factories, but there is a power disparity, she said.

“Even for small events in the village, if the husband doesn’t let them go, they end up not going.” Even if a woman belongs to a high-class family, she still doesn’t have much right to make decisions, she said. 

Sarath continued that if she won and became commune chief, promoting women’s rights would be among her priorities.

She divided the issue in two: The first was domestic violence. Currently in her commune, if any domestic violence happens, authorities only call in women to talk about their rights, which Sarath thinks it’s a mistake.

“We’re not just going to talk to the women, because domestic violence is mostly caused by men,” she said. For her, both women and men equally need to be educated about gender.

To that end, Sarath proposes creating a group to promote gender rights that would meet twice a month in each of the commune’s seven villages. The group would make sure that both husbands and wives fully understand their rights around domestic abuse.

The second half of the issue in her commune was women not feeling that they can or should participate in local civic life, she said.

Sarath said she knows many women who, due to social norms, would rather stay at home to look after a baby or do housework than participate in social activities. To encourage them to be more active in the commune, “I need to meet them in person myself,” Sarath said.

“It’s important that we listen to their unique problems,” Sarath said. “When we do listen to them and try to solve it together, those women will have the trust to come out and become more involved with society.”

Sarath hopes to be able to erase her villagers’ fear of getting involved. “In our commune, the people are very afraid about politics. Even when we go to greet them, they don’t even want to talk because they are afraid that it will affect the powerful people who could pressure them.”

Srey Sophoeun, the ruling party’s current Kampong Tralach commune chief, denied that authorities don’t listen to women and villagers’ opinions.

“We’re not discriminating against them and not letting them express their ideas,” Sophoeun said, explaining that people should submit complaints to the administration and give him time to solve them.

He added that no one stops women from standing as candidates. “It’s not true — the thing is, it depends on the individual’s ability. If they contact the party, there’s also a chance for them, just like the men.”

Sophoeun said the ruling CPP also cares about gender issues. “If we, the CPP, still have the support, we will improve human resources and other issues that matter most to the community,” he said. The CPP won 54% of the vote in Kampong Tralach in 2017. “We will focus on social services, accountability as well as women’s issues.”

For the GDP’s Sarath, other issues she wants to tackle include finding new markets for rice, vegetables and the other agricultural products of the commune; helping older residents with medical bills; and building a preschool in each of the commune’s seven villages. Such kindergartens would reduce the burden on grandparents and help children learn, she said.

But she would have to win first, and most women wouldn’t even get the opportunity to be in the position to try. “They don’t have the chance. Even till death they still couldn’t stand in the first position,” Sarath said, arguing that other parties were not democratic internally.

“For the men, once they are in power they will always hold it.”

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