omen play a significant role in the country's economy: 73.5 percent of women over
15 working, compared to 81.2 percent of men. But feelings about female education
and employment are mixed, as a practical awareness of the benefits struggles with
traditional ideas about a woman's place.
"When a girl goes to work in the garment factories, her family is both happy
and not happy," says Pry Thally Thuong, program officer at Oxfam Hong Kong.
The family is happy, she explains, because the money the girl will send home is likely
desperately needed. But they will be displeased because girls should traditionally
be at home helping with the cooking and the cleaning. They should not be alone in
the city, vulnerable and independent.
This ambivalence, typical of attitudes to working women across all sectors, translates
into a complex situation for the workers, whose earning power is considerable, says
the Cambodian Development Resource Institute. Its figures show garment work is one
of only three sectors where incomes have risen since 2000. Most of the money goes
But the social stigma they face means any empowerment is at best severely compromised.
Discussing the results of a 2002 Oxfam Hong Kong survey, the NGO's Margaritta Maffii
described the garment workers as "very, very desperate and very angry".
In some ways the factories, which employ one in five women in the 18-to-25 age bracket,
are creating what Margaret Slocomb from Gender and Development for Cambodia (GAD/C),
describes as "a sort of social revolution". She says some people look down
on the garment workers.
"But they are away from home, they're earning money, they are joining unions
and learning about their political power," she says, adding that the impact
of living and working in the city should not be underestimated.
Slocomb says education is essential to reconcile this clash between traditional and
modern ways of life. Figures from the Ministry of Education show 80 percent of girls
of primary school age are enrolled. But the numbers then fall rapidly, sinking to
just 5.4 percent by upper secondary level. Poverty is a major factor.
Many families cannot afford to keep their children in school, and if forced, prefer
to educate sons. GAD/C says men's wages are on average 27 percent higher, while two-thirds
of women are either unpaid or self-employed.
Overall almost one-third of working women have no education, which means many end
up in low skilled, low status and low paid jobs. The risk is that the next generation
will repeat that cycle.
However, Mealy, an archeology student at the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA),
disagrees. Many girls Mealy spoke to while running RUFA's stall at the recent job
fair are keen to get a good education and a well-paid job. She believes practical
considerations will force the change.
"Some Cambodian men do not want to marry an educated girl, because they think
they cannot control her properly," she says. "But if both are working,
the standard of living for the whole family improves."
But with 200,000 people entering the job market each year, finding work is not a
simple matter for either men or women. As Sandra D'Amico, consulting and recruitment
manager for Strategic Management Systems, says: "The wave of youth coming onto
the market now and in the coming years will carry with it some real social and economic
ï Kate Taylor is a freelance journalist.