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Women left behind amid global crisis

YEAR 2010 will be a year of challenges for Cambodia. We all know about the effect of the global economic downturn. In Cambodia, the four main pillars of the economy – garment, construction, tourism and agriculture – have been affected. Businesses cut spending. Jobs were lost.

People migrated to other areas to look for work. And some went back to work in agriculture. Women in export-oriented and service industries are particularly vulnerable after overseas demand plummeted with eroding consumer confidence in American and European markets.

According to the Ministry of Commerce, as many as 63,000 Cambodian garment factory workers, or 18 percent of the total industry workforce, lost their jobs from September 2008 to May 2009. Many of them are women who had to go back to the farm sector only to find that there was nothing much to do at home because there was no rain for their rain-fed agriculture. The annual floods and Typhoon Ketsana that hit parts of the country late last year damaged thousands of hectares of rice crops in the last harvesting season and made their return to the farm sector a nonviable coping mechanism for many women.

Now the world economy is picking up, slowly but steadily. Governments across the world continue rolling out stimulus packages to fight unemployment and boost growth. Investor confidence started growing. There is hope that Cambodia’s economy will follow the same pattern. That is good news.

Here’s the bad news: Very few measures and policies are really designed to help poor people weather the economic storm, especially women who are the most vulnerable and affected by the turmoil and yet instrumental in the recovery.

Oxfam’s research and interviews with women in the region show that despite the positive outlook, the road to recovery is still bumpy, and there’s a long way to go, especially for women working in export-oriented industry in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, whose main incomes rely on overseas demand.

According to the new World Bank report titled Global Economic Prospects 2010, the global recovery is still fragile and the fallout from the crisis will change the landscape for finance and growth over the next 10 years. It has estimated gross world product to grow 2.7 percent this year and 3.2 percent in 2011, a slight increase from 2.2 percent in 2009. In developing countries including China and India with robust recovery, the figure is expected to be around 5.2 percent this year and 5.8 percent next year, and much lower for developed countries.

For Cambodia, this means we cannot expect an overnight recovery, as we depend on demand from developed countries. In 2009 Cambodia suffered from a decreased export of garments, with negative growth in the sector, whereas Bangladesh and Vietnam have been exporting more garments than last year. The country should re-examine its competitiveness in the industry.

Sadly, it is always poor people who are hardest-hit and the last to recover from an economic crunch.

Since women workers generally earn little more than a minimum wage, they are able to save less. And because women are the majority of workers in export-oriented and service industries, they are more vulnerable to job loss and wage cuts than men in times of economic crises.

Some might think a family should not suffer much if a woman loses her job since her spouse earns more money anyway, but the fact that women spend more of their money on children, household goods and daily expenses compared with men means the loss is more serious.

And despite their majority and crucial roles in managing family income and ensuring everyone’s well-being, there were very few loan projects that granted the much-needed money to these women on the ground to rehabilitate their livelihood.

In urban areas of Cambodia, many women have sought new incomes through multiple jobs, some in the informal and entertainment sectors. In many cases, these options were taken after borrowing money. This livelihood disruption occurs across the region. Research and interviews with women workers in Southeast Asia by Oxfam has confirmed this. Complaints such as, “I was able to pay my loan but the interest ruined me”, “I scrimp and save and walk to the market”, “It’s much more difficult to find jobs in the cities, so everyone has to come home even if there’s nothing for us here” or “We have to budget all the time to have enough for even necessities” are all too common when you talk to them.

Questions abound as to why their governments have overlooked them or failed to set up specific programmes or measures that addressed their needs. Most governments in the region have also ignored the gendered impact of the crisis.

It is also worrying that many companies have used the crisis to hasten moves to a more “flexible workforce”, giving them less secure pay and conditions through shorter, temporary contracts. An Oxfam study in 2009 found that a small number of factories in Cambodia closed and reopened suspiciously for tax holiday purposes. Many employees were made to work without social security.

Studies around the world have suggested that active participation of women is necessary to deliver clear, practical and gender-balanced measures. Communities in which women play an active role in decision making and resource management showed a strong resilience against crises. And that should be our goal.

This one isn’t the last crisis. The key lesson from this is that governments must focus on how to create a sustainable economy with social welfare for poor men and women. We must also ask how durable this recovery is and whether it builds resilience or reduces vulnerability to future shocks.

The crisis has given an opportunity to ask this question: Have we wasted the chance of reform? Have we promoted women’s roles in speedy recovery and shaped a sustainable economy enough? If not, it is about time.

Sarah Ireland is regional director of Oxfam Great Britain. She was country director in South Asia for a few years before moving to Southeast Asia in 2007.

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