Women’s Leadership: A Case Study From Cambodia


In a rural commune in Kratie province, a group of women motivated to work for the emancipation of other women, gathered together and initiated a series of activities aimed at promoting new roles and opportunities for women in their community. They gave birth to a network of women involved in initiatives and small projects, in order to encourage women’s self-confidence and capacities. Together, these women were able to step out of traditional roles and engage in new public and social activities.

With the support of NGOs, and by taking advantage of the decentralisation process, that has begun to create opportunities for local political leaders since the 2002 commune elections, these women have been able to gain important leadership positions in their communities, and in the 2007 commune elections a woman was elected to serve as the chair of the commune. According to these women, their activities have had an impact on the perception of women and gender issues by the community, and their interventions have been effective in reducing domestic violence, widespread among the families in the commune.

For this reason their experience offers a great opportunity to learn more about strategies that women can employ to gain representation in politics and in their communities while seeking gender equality. The Heinrich Böll Foundation has thus started a discussion and research initiative with this group of women and their community since 2008, hoping to gain insight from their efforts and results.

The first question this case study would like to answer is how these women were able to gain their relevance within their community and in local politics, to the point of even becoming village and commune chiefs. According to them, they started by setting up a network of volunteers, helping women get health care and health education. They focused on building self-confidence and self-esteem, in order to overcome the negative impact of gender discrimination and the feeling of being inadequate and incapable. They encouraged women to take on new tasks in social organisations such as fishery committees, rice banks, or in other small development projects. The initial group of motivated women grew into a “critical mass” of nearly 20 or more women, all active at different level with the community.

The personal commitment of the women has been very important in shaping their leadership role, and has required that they negotiate changes within their personal sphere, and reshape their private lives. Convincing their husbands to accept their new role as women leaders has demanded patience and skill, but their efforts have been paid back by the esteem of the women in their community. They have become role models: their actions have illustrated that things can be changed and that women and men can negotiate new gender roles while living together in peace and mutual satisfaction.

During this process of leadership building, they have been confronted with crises, in particular when communities’ resources, forest and access to water sources, were in danger. The women inspired and led the villagers to protect their rights. This distinguished them in their communities as trustworthy and accountable leaders, willing to act and even take risks for their community. Noticeably, women leaders have different political affiliations, but this diversity has not created divisions or tensions. They have been able to overcome political differences and cooperate with each other.

The second research question concerned how women leaders have been able to pursue gender equality, and in particular to counteract domestic violence, which is widespread in Cambodia. The women’s group has dealt with the problem in different ways. On one hand, they have encouraged women to report episodes of violence and to look for support and justice, instead of considering violence to be part of their duty as housewives, to be endured in silence. Victims of domestic violence in the community found the women leaders to be compassionate and attentive listeners, understanding their problems and willing to find solutions, more than their former male colleagues.The women volunteers’ network and women in different roles and positions in the community engaged in educational activities about women’s rights and in counselling with the most problematic situations. But most importantly they applied the law, treating domestic violence as a severe offence, without showing tolerance towards perpetrators. They pushed the police force to perform their duties, and to use all the means available to them, including imprisonment, whenever necessary and appropriate.

The women leaders profiled in this case study continue to represent an example for individuals in their communities, who acknowledge their capacities, correctness and accountability. Many community members mention the changes occurred among the leaders’ families and husbands, who agreed to deal with household chores like cooking and washing, and have let their wives free to travel and fulfil their political roles. These changes are considered inspiring, and new men’s roles present an example, even for community men.

For many village women, domestic violence has decreased. They feel that local authorities are listening to women’s calls for help more and dealing with the issue properly. However, some have stated that there haven’t been substantial changes. Violence continues to ravage certain families. From further discussions with community women on this subject, it appeared that the number of cases has in fact significantly decreased. The commune chief, for example, mentioned that at the beginning of her mandate her telephone rang every night, and she had to deal with domestic violence related emergencies on a daily basis. Now, however, the remaining cases are the more complex or entrenched and this has had an impact on the collective perception of the issue. Associated with violence against women, the study has highlighted the often unacknowledged problem of alcoholism among the men, which seem to be increasing.

The discussions with village women revealed the changes that occurred during the years covered by the research; during the discussions, community women wanted to talk more about their daily problems of land scarcity, lack of employment, and families’ disbanding, than about women’s leadership. While in 2008 the commune leaders maintained that there wasn’t a land problem in the community, by 2011 it has become a major issue. The price of land has increased since 2008, and many families have sold their land to get cash and are now labourers in others’ fields. Also, land concessions have impeded access to forest land, where villagers used to find non-timber products. The situation of land property has become extremely intricate, and only the most powerful people in the community seem to be able to protect their own interests.

Migration in the country and abroad is peaking, driven by media campaigns that solicit young women to leave the country to work as maids or factory workers in Malaysia or South Korea. The perception that companies facilitating overseas migration are fully supported by the government increases their appeal and promotes migration as an easy and safe way to get money. The dark side of the issue, the difficulties faced by girls there, their aloneness and lack of legal protection, is not fully acknowledged.

Because of these critical situations, women leaders find it difficult to support grassroots women and answer their needs. The process of political decentralisation in Cambodia does not yet provide local authorities with the power and the means to develop policies about development in their areas. Women leaders find themselves bare handed in dealing with crises, or have their range of action restricted to decisions concerning small infrastructure rebuilding. Secondly, the institutional gender mainstreaming program that accompanies decentralisation, has gained momentum. This implies a significant change in gender referral principles: awareness of gender discrimination and its implications, and the need to restore women’s self-confidence and esteem have been replaced by a vision that equates gender to “women’s and children’s affairs”. This discourse promoted by the institutional gender mainstreaming bodies is extended to women leaders through meetings, workshops, provincial gatherings etc., where this perspective is continuously reiterated without any further analysis of gender discrimination and its impact and implication, nor any elaboration on policies to target it.

Even more important, the NGOs in the area do not counteract this tendency and have stopped providing women leaders with the critical inputs and tools they need to analyse such new trends. On gender related issues, NGOs seem to have given away their role of advocates for new and progressive social perspectives, and instead given into the institutional gender mainstreaming discourse.

In conclusion, the experience in this community shows that by mobilising women, building networks and focusing on self-confidence and awareness of discrimination, it is possible to achieve important results in terms of women’s participation in social life and decision-making. It also stresses the relevance of women leaders’ accountability and example: gender roles should evolve at the personal, social, cultural and political levels. Leading by example is what made women leaders in this community succeed, and gain trust and acknowledgment. Nevertheless, in order to secure their achievements, results need to be constantly reviewed and strategies updated. And grassroots women and communities’ participation is crucial to activate this process. If local women leaders limit themselves to follow the conservative agenda proposed at the institutional level, they will not be able to answer the needs of the women they seek to help, and will lose the capital of trust they have worked so hard to establish.


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