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Cambodian women workers gather to buy food outside a factory in Phnom Penh. © CHARLES FOX/UN WOMEN
Cambodian women workers gather to buy food outside a factory in Phnom Penh. Charles Fox/UN Women

Getting women working

Women make an important contribution to Cambodia’s economic growth. We only need to look around to see women playing a major role in key sectors like agriculture, tourism, commerce and garment manufacturing. Statistics tell the same story: Cambodian women have one of the highest rates of participation in the labour force in the region. But does growth work for women?

Experience from around the world shows that economic growth does not equally benefit women and men. In fact left to themselves markets replicate existing inequalities.

That is why this year’s International Women’s Day, which we mark today, is focused on Women in the Changing World of Work. Here in Cambodia, women are highly active in the economy but they are concentrated in informal employment, which means that they are less likely to be protected from exploitation, abuse, trafficking and low pay. Many women are self-employed, but they lack access to capital and other assets, including land, and their enterprises remain small.

Cambodia has already made important steps in creating legislation to protect women’s rights in the workplace. The law states that men and women must be paid the same for work of equal value and sexual discrimination in hiring is illegal. Maternity leave and breastfeeding rights are also protected by law. However, to make economic growth work for women, it is important to consider measures to increase women’s participation, competitiveness and protection that respond to their needs as they define them.

A major barrier to women’s participation in the paid economy is the disproportionate burden of care work cleaning, cooking and caring for children and elderly people that they bear. In Cambodia women carry out four times more care work than men. Without care work, families and communities could not function and economic growth could not be achieved.

But this work is unpaid, undervalued and missing from conventional analysis of the economy. Investment in the social sector can reduce the burden of care work, freeing women to participate in the paid economy and share in the benefits of growth.

Educational opportunity is an important first step towards enhancing women’s competitiveness in the changing economy. Cambodia has achieved gender parity in primary education but girls are less likely than boys to complete secondary and university education. Cambodia is formulating new policy initiatives for technical and vocational education and training (TVET) to increase the marketable skills of its workforce and maximise the economic benefits of having a young population. Young women need to benefit from TVET.

Training should not perpetuate gender stereotypes by pushing young women into conventionally feminine career options, low quality and low-added-value employment. To access the digital economy and benefit from the higher value opportunities that it brings, women need to access the traditionally male-dominated disciplines of science, technology and mathematics.

Furthermore, women can be more active in the economy when their choices are not limited by violence and harassment, so protection from abuse makes economic sense. In Cambodia, laws and policies on violence against women are in place and there are significant efforts to improve services for women and girls who face violence, including initatives to combat sexual harassment in the workplace and community, but the stories of women affected overwhelmingly point to gaps in implementation.

It is important to actively engage men and boys in preventing violence, to invest in the health sector, justice system and social services responses to violence and to enhance the role of the private sector in ensuring workplaces are free from harassment and abuse.

Global experience shows that while economic growth does not necessarily bring gender equality, gender equality does contribute to economic growth. To maximise women’s contribution to the economy the social norms that undervalue women need to be challenged and practical steps taken to address the inequalities they perpetuate.

Ensuring that Cambodia’s impressive economic growth benefits women is key to achieving the global vision set out in the Sustainable Development Goals, the commitments guiding the global development agenda, of Leaving No One Behind.

Claire Van der Vaeren is the United Nations resident coordinator on behalf of the UN system in Cambodia.

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