In Cambodia, the marginalisation and under-education of women remains among the worst in the world, a new report says.
Development organisations have long recognised the centrality of women and girls in the fight to eradicate poverty. But in practice, the pace of poverty alleviation in the region is slacking, mired in a rut of inequality, according to the latest United Nations Human Development Report.
“Despite improvements in health, and incremental progress on education and parliamentary representation, women’s empowerment is still lagging,” the report’s researchers found.
The latest Human Development Report bumps Cambodia up one ranking place to 136th out of the 187 countries rated, but the Kingdom’s development index – which takes into account standard of living, knowledge and the ability to live a long healthy life – clocked in well below the regional average (0.584 compared to 0.703). And when factoring in inequalities in education and income too, Cambodia drops towards the bottom of the low development category.
For females especially, the education index for the Kingdom lags woefully behind the rest of ASEAN.
Only some 9.9 per cent of Cambodian females 25 and older have had some secondary school education, among the lowest in the world, on a par with Afghanistan, Rwanda and Sierra Leone.
“Within Cambodian families, most girls are told they have to work while the boys get to study,” said Ros Salin, spokesman for the Ministry of Education. “Many [parents] see a choice between sending their girls to school or feeding their family.”
According to Salin, part of the reason the burden of supporting the family falls on the girls’ shoulders is because factories, the most plentiful source of work for unskilled labourers, prefer women.
“Most of the girls have the opportunity to find jobs in high school, so they’re pushed to make financial contributions rather than finish their studies,” Salin continued.
“But their families would benefit more if [the girls] finished their studies and got a baccalaureate; they would have a lot more economic opportunities.”
The ministry largely credits food assistance programs, which provide students with meals, as well as rice to take home to their families, with recent gains made in female primary student enrolment.
The initial increase fails, however, to translate into long-term retention: Cambodia has the highest dropout rate in ASEAN, with less than a third of the students continuing studies beyond the sixth grade.
“There needs to be significantly more money put into girls’ education,” said Ros Sopheap, executive director of Gender and Development for Cambodia.
While the minister of education has previously told the Post that thousands of dollars are put towards female scholarships every year, spending is limited by the allocated budget: Cambodia puts only 2.6 per cent of its GDP towards education, drastically lower than almost every other country in the region.