Today marks International Youth Day. It is an opportune moment to both look at Cambodia’s successes in seeking to address the issues still facing its young people, as well as exploring the ways they can be empowered to reach their full economic and social potential.
Cambodia’s greatest asset is its young men and women. They are confident, dynamic and motivated. And the United Nations knows that investment in Cambodia’s youth is an investment in the future of the Kingdom.
Cambodia has the youngest population of any country in Southeast Asia, with nearly 30 per cent of its population classified as youth (aged between 15 and 24). Seven percent of them are unemployed.
Youth unemployment is an issue requiring global attention, with an estimated 81 million young people unemployed in the world. However, with the number of unemployed youth three times higher than that of adults in Cambodia, according to a report on labour and social trends, prepared by the National Institute of Statistics in collaboration with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) last year, tackling this issue in Cambodia must be a sustained priority.
In Phnom Penh youth unemployment is as high as 20 per cent due to migration to the capital city because of lack of employment opportunities in rural areas. Young women, who are doubly affected as they face wage discrimination, are less likely to have secure employment and are over-represented in unskilled work and in the informal segment, leading them to earn less than men.
Harnessing the potential of almost three million young people could give the vitality the Kingdom needs to make its dreams of becoming an innovative economy a reality. While social protection measures are still being developed, young people especially the poor, who are desperate for a job, have to take work opportunities often with inadequate conditions which are insecure and poorly-paid in the informal sector in or outside of the country.
As Cambodia continues to emerge from the economic and political legacy of its past, the issue of youth unemployment must be vigorously and continuously addressed. While there is a lack of adequate opportunities for decent work for them, they do not have adequate skills and education to access existing jobs or to be either gainfully employed or self-employed.
According to a 2006 Education Management Information System, only 1.4 per cent of 19–22 year-old Cambodians were enrolled in tertiary education. Of the few that get the opportunity, many leave school ill-equipped. The crux of the youth employment issue lies in a mismatch between the skills these young people have acquired through training and education and the demands of the labour market.
Education and skills development, therefore, need critical attention and should be complemented with strong industry cooperation and an enabling policy environment focused on employment generation.
The recently approved National Policy on Cambodian Youth Development is a significant step that marks a commitment by the government to address the challenges youth in Cambodia face. Education and employment feature heavily in the policy, which has been several years in the making.
Health including drug abuse; protection, safety, security and justice; political participation; and gender are some of the other key strategy issues contained in the policy. The next steps to implement the policy will be crucial to its success and the future prosperity of the country.
Responsible for implementing the policy will be a Cambodian National Council for Youth Development, which will be given the responsibility of coordinating public and private institutions and civil society and the monitoring of the youth action plan.
The Council will play a significant role in promoting the youth programme into national budgeting, within various line ministries, public institutions and local authorities at all levels, so the foundation for the establishment of the council will need to be strong.
The ILO have called for a coordinated, long-term employment policy that encompasses a comprehensive programme on school-to-work transition and career guidance and takes into account the country’s pattern of economic growth.
The development of youth-centred employment programmes promoting gender equality and decent work principles, coupled with further investment in social protection, can put us on the right track to providing our young people with the decent work opportunities.
The Royal Government of Cambodia has already recognised this necessity and has taken a leadership role in creating the National Employment Agency, which is a key partner in providing effective and efficient labour market services, especially for young people, so they are guided to future jobs foreseen in the National Strategic Development Plan.
Additionally, the private sector, which has already taken innovative steps in recognising the need to create jobs for young people, must fully incorporate this into their training and recruitment policies. Trade Unions must play a pivotal role in advocating the rights of young employees.
The UN stands ready to join hands with all partners to enhance the country’s economic and social prospects by creating a sustainable environment that promotes decent employment opportunities for Cambodia’s young people.
Douglas Broderick is the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Cambodia and Jiyuan Wang is Director of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Cambodia.