In Cambodia, female representation in the legal profession remains relatively low despite the progress made in recent decades. Men tend to have more opportunities to pursue their careers as lawyers, prosecutors, and judges, while women's numbers in those careers are significantly behind.
Advocates have long pushed for gender equality in the Cambodian legal profession. Over the years, there has been substantial progress, as evidenced by some of the changes that have taken place between 2013 and 2017. In 2013, women lawyers comprised only 22%, which increased to 25% in 2017. According to the most recent statistic provided by the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia, as of 2022, there are 2614 lawyers in the Kingdom among which there are only 649 female lawyers (24.8%).
This showcases that although women have campaigned for years for gender equality, the level of women's representation in the courtroom remains relatively low. As well as lawyers, according to a 2018 report by the Cambodian National Council for Women, only 14% of judges in the country were women, and that proportion has barely improved over time.
Below is the table indicating the number of women and men in legal professions as of 2022
Source: Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia (2022)
Challenges facing women in the law
Gender biases continue to permeate the courtroom and the legal profession as a whole, making career advancement for women a struggle. Gender disparagement undermines women's authority in law practice. Women lawyers have reported experiencing gender bias from judges, jurors, and other attorneys, ignoring their suggestions or statements, being bullied and treated with condescension, and even having clients express a preference for male lead trial counsel. These verbal acts draw attention to women's gender and lower women's esteem or standing. Women's rights activists, lawyers, and victims have said that the imbalance of women's representation in the courtroom has created a host of problems, with female lawyers and prosecutors often not being taken seriously by judges and female victims of abuse or sexual violence re-traumatized or blamed by insensitive courts.
Indeed, the low number of women in the law has been shown to have a detrimental impact on the entire court system. Within the male-dominated court, some women legal professionals in the courtroom lose confidence in voicing their opinion and views. While women have campaigned for years for ‘a seat at the table,’ many women now find themselves sitting at the table, but once having taken their seats, they still aren't recognized as legitimate speakers.
Similarly, lawyer Yim Thavy said that prosecutors and judges sometimes "don't respect and value" female lawyers and often do not take cases of abuse seriously. A report from CCHR showed that the underrepresentation of women in the courtroom and judicial system caused an intimidating environment for other Cambodian women that were brought to trial.
Traditional norms and family dynamics remain the root cause and barrier for women pursuing a legal profession. In Cambodia, women are constrained by unpaid care work, and it is believed that women are responsible for taking care of the family rather than having their own jobs. The Chbab Srey, a traditional code of conduct for women, is an important piece of Khmer culture. It codifies women's status at home, reminding them that married women should perform domestic duties within the household. Lawyer Ou Helene believes that one of the barriers that challenge women entering the legal profession is an expectation that they will give up the profession once they are married
Importance of women in the law
First, the law is diverse in nature and should be applied to all people equally across all aspects of social diversity. This principle is evident in the different types of law that exist, ranging from criminal, tort, family, and others in Cambodia. The law's main purpose is to seek justice, uphold equality and provide safety and security in the country. Some lawyers represent different categories of people and different aspects of the laws, meaning the inclusion of women in the legal profession is needed.
Second, women working in the judicial system can act as role models for other women who are passionate about pursuing a career in law. Many young women hope to have a successful career in law where they can use the platforms they have to achieve justice and equality for all. If these group of young people sees that there is equality, they will work even harder to achieve their goals. And, at least, they will have people whom they can look up to.
Lastly, there are endless possibilities that can come from the equality of women in the legal profession. Margaret Mead stated, "Never underestimate the ability of a small, dedicated group of people to change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Relating her quote to the equality of women in the legal profession, it is without a doubt that much more can be achieved when women are included and well-represented in the legal profession.
International and National Policy Framework for Women's Empowerment
Women are legally entitled to participate in all careers, including legal professions, without discrimination. These rights are stipulated in both international and national legal frameworks. At the international level, conventions and international instruments set out the grounds for States to ensure the equality of men and women to enjoy all civil, political, economic, and social activities. At the national level, the Cambodian government has enacted relevant laws, and national action plans to promote gender equality, such as Neary Rattanak, which formulates national policy frameworks to promote women's participation in key priority areas and sectors.
Although there are laws, policies, and regulations set out by the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC), women's underrepresentation still exists in legal professions. There are two ways that governments can ensure women's participation in the law and promote women in pursuing legal professions. The RGC should allocate an adequate national budget to promote women in the law, for instance, by providing training and scholarships for their capacity building. It should be introduced and actively implemented to eradicate gendered bullying and discrimination in the legal profession. Besides, the government should promote, train and place lawyers or legal professionals to handle "gender-specific issues."
Gender-specific issues should be handled by any legal professional who knows how to handle the case without traumatising the victims. According to Seng Reasey, from the women's rights organization Silaka, the lack of women's representation impacts court cases involving abuse. She cited a case related to a 5-year-old girl who was allegedly raped by her neighbor. The court kept asking her to recount the whole story, bringing her another nightmare when she could not answer. Ultimately, the case was dropped by the family, not wanting the young girl to keep reliving the experience. This is an issue that the RGC should consider to strengthen its judicial system to ensure that victims and survivors are not revictimized through the legal process.
About the author: Sreynou is Campaign & Research Intern at Klahaan and is completing her undergraduate law degree at ELBBL.