Khmer-American Aims To Bring Women into Cambodian Politics


2006-11-21
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Nanda Pok. Photo: The Asia Foundation

Nanda Pok was born in Cambodia but fled to the United States at age 16. She has worked for nongovernmental organizations for two decades, trying to bring genuine democracy to her native country. “Unless Cambodian women stand up and challenge the traditional stereotype, our voice will not be heard,” she says, “and our talent and our potential ability will not be recognized.”

“I was born on Feb. 1, 1959, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I went to school in Cambodia, France, and the United States. I earned my degree and work experience in the United States.”

“I have been working for nonprofit [organizations] for over 20 years. One may think that this is too long, but as for me, I will continue this work as long as I see more and more women involved in decision-making positions. If election law in Cambodia changes to allow independent candidates, I would consider running. Otherwise, I would like to become a businesswoman when I retire from NGO work.”

“I lived in the United States for 18 years. I came to the United States when I was 16 years old, two weeks prior to the fall of Cambodia. At that time, I thought that my parents would be staying in Cambodia and had probably been killed. And then we found out three months later that my mom was still alive, and six months later that my dad was still alive. We were reunited in the United States in late 1975.”

...Cambodian women are passive. You know, we were trained not to speak loudly, to walk in a certain way. So this culture is really a barrier to us entering politics…

“Our first trip back to Cambodia was after the Paris Peace Agreement was signed in 1991… and that’s when I told my parents that I would like to return to Cambodia to be part of the reconstruction and development of our country. My mom didn’t support my idea, but my dad said that he wished me luck and that he wanted me to work hard toward my dream.”

“I ran for office in the first election organized by Cambodia, in 1993. I was not fortunate to get elected, but that experience led me to establish Women for Prosperity because I envisioned more and more women running and getting elected to office.”

'Women for Prosperity'

“From the beginning in 1994, when I wrote a proposal, I lobbied so many donors. Nobody believed in me… because our first program was on women’s leadership. Our first funding was from The Asia Foundation. And that’s how it got me started, and that’s how Cambodian women started to show their potential.”

“We started with a women’s leadership program, followed by a program called Empowerment of Women in Politics. And that’s where we started to train women to run for the National Assembly election in 1998.”

“We had ongoing training to get women elected to office in every election. We have so far trained almost a thousand women to run for the National Assembly, and we have been able to double the number of women elected to the National Assembly. In 1993, we had seven women elected. In 1998, we had 15 women. And from the last, in 2003, we now have 23 women in the National Assembly out of 123 seats.”

“You have heard that we train women to run in local elections as well. The first local election in Cambodia took place in 2002. Our organization trained over 5,000 women throughout the country… almost 1,000 of them got elected.”

Trained to speak softly

“[In our training], we talk about ‘What is politics?’ and ‘Why do we get involved in politics?’ [We also discuss] fundraising and public speaking, because Cambodian women are passive. You know, we were trained not to speak loudly, to walk in a certain way.”

“So this culture is really a barrier to us entering politics… We feel that unless Cambodian women stand up and challenge the traditional stereotype, our voice will not be heard, and our talent and our potential ability will not be recognized.”

Original reporting by Richard Finney in Washington. Edited and produced by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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