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Young construction workers stand on scaffolding at a building site in Phnom Penh in August
Young construction workers stand on scaffolding at a building site in Phnom Penh in August. REUTERS

Challenges for Cambodia’s youth


The Cambodian economy is transforming rapidly. Most of the growth within the industrial and service sectors is located in urban areas, where labour and access to markets tend to be concentrated.

And the prospect of higher incomes and educational opportunities in the cities has encouraged increasing levels of youth migration.

This year’s global theme for International Youth Day, “Youth Migration: Moving Development Forward”, is therefore particularly apt.

Youth migration from rural to urban areas is both a factor and a result of growth and development. It is providing new avenues for rising out of poverty and connecting young people with job opportunities; but it also exposes some young people to certain risks.

One in three Cambodians are between 15 and 29 years old, and 300,000 young people enter the workforce every year. Also according to National Institute of Statistics figures, about a quarter of the total Cambodian population are internal migrants: people who have moved from their district of origin for at least three months.

Three quarters of them, about 2.5 million people, are youth aged 15 to 29.

Away from familiar surroundings and trusted people, young migrants unfortunately can be exposed to all kinds of threats, from violence and exploitation to substance abuse and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). Labour migration also places youth at risk from criminals, including those involved in human trafficking.

The Cambodian Rural Urban Migration Project, developed by the Ministry of Planning with UN support, finds most migrant women are small business owners, or employed in garment factories or the entertainment and service industries.

Having moved away from their usual support networks at home, these female youth migrants may be exposed to sexual and reproductive health risks such as STIs and unwanted pregnancies, as well as gender-based violence.

In addition, many young female migrant workers have to leave their children behind in their villages, where they often receive less than optimum care.

On the other hand, the most common jobs for migrant men are in construction, day labouring and driving. They in turn may be exposed to amphetamine-type-stimulants (ATS) due to its perceived benefits in working longer hours.

Poor working conditions pose further risks, such as those associated with night work, heavy work, long hours and hot workplaces, as evidenced in a study by the Cambodia Development Resource Institute (CDRI).

Finally, the high mobility of migrating youth makes the provision of medical treatment and social counseling more difficult.

However, by making services youth-friendly and through continued cooperation, government, development partners, the private sector, youth groups, NGOs and civil society organisations can mitigate the pitfalls of migration, helping the new generation play its part in Cambodia’s social and economic transformation.

Together, we are working on boosting social protection systems; on providing accessible and affordable healthcare; on strengthening the legal framework; and on social counseling and drug treatment.

Youth are being encouraged to acquire skills and provided with advice on their options. Targeted youth-friendly information services – on subjects such as urban living, labour rights, reproductive rights, gender discrimination and violence, exploitation, health, nutrition, HIV/AIDS and substance use – can arm young people with the tools they need, before and after they choose to move.

Partners also continue to promote decent childcare facilities at workplaces to prevent separation of children from their mothers. In the meantime, we all have a role to play ensuring that health and safety standards are upheld in factories and construction sites.

The United Nations in Cambodia continues working with the government and other partners on all these issues.

Because Cambodia’s burgeoning ‘human capital is its biggest asset on the path to middle-income status and a better life for all, including future generations. Young people are hitting the road in search of the new prospects that growth presents, and already making a major contribution to national development.

Let’s keep working together to recognise the impact of this phenomenon, and take measures to ensure that, on balance, it works in favour of sustainable development.

Claire Van der Vaeren is the UN Resident Coordinator on behalf of the UN Country Team in Cambodia.



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