The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and OXFAM in Cambodia on September 7 jointly organised a national forum on “Promoting Women Entrepreneurship in ASEAN through Social Protection and Family Care Policies”.

The forum followed research indicating that women-owned businesses are smaller and less profitable on average than those run by men, making them more vulnerable to closure during economic downturns.

The forum was held with 200 participants in attendance, with 500 others attending virtually.

The participants included the leadership of national and sub-national institutions, ASEAN Secretariat officials, foreign diplomats, representatives of development partners and civil society organisations, as well as women entrepreneurs.

According to a joint press release, the forum was part of a joint initiative by the women’s affairs ministry and OXFAM to support Cambodia’s agenda as the chair of ASEAN this year – in coordination with the ASEAN secretariat – for the promotion of women’s entrepreneurship, social protection and to contribute to solving the problems of unpaid work within the ASEAN member states.

“Advancing . . . ASEAN family care and social protection policies will serve to advance women entrepreneurship in Cambodia and in the region. This national forum is organised to raise awareness and engagement among stakeholders in the Cambodian and ASEAN communities about unpaid work, family care and social protection policy, and also to collect feedback to prepare a roadmap for Cambodia in the near future,” it said.

ASEAN economies have grown tremendously over the past 50 years, averaging about 5.3 per cent annually since 2006, now have a collective gross domestic product (GDP) of over $3 trillion.

From 2015 onwards, the percentage of working-age women in the labour force in Southeast Asia has been higher than 67 per cent – a number that is expected to continue to increase, according to the press release.

It also said that in some ASEAN countries, entrepreneurship is an important source of economic growth and is a core of many national economies.

Across the region, small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) generate a substantial share of GDP and are a major source of labour market creation – thereby increasing incomes, reducing poverty and improving family wellbeing.

“Although the rate of self-employment is high, women-owned businesses are still smaller than men-owned businesses in terms of size and productivity, and those businesses or enterprises tend to earn less profit and be more vulnerable to economic crises,” the statement said.

Women’s affairs minister Ing Kanthaphavi said the forum was an opportunity for the participants to gain a comprehensive understanding of issues surrounding unpaid work and social protection policies as stated under the ASEAN framework and across the region.

“Lessons was learned from the information shared by our speakers and we also collected inputs and recommendations for the women’s affairs ministry and other stakeholders so that we may formulate a defined roadmap for future policy interventions,” she said.

Phean Sophoan, National Director of OXFAM in Cambodia, said the forum that women today still earn less than men, and that much of women’s work is irregular and low paid while most Cambodian women have additional obligations caring for family members even while doing business and working outside the home.

“Social Protection and Family Care Policies are very important in supporting the government’s efforts to reduce gender inequality and poverty alleviation in Cambodia, especially among women,” she said.

“Research shows that Cambodian women spend an average of 188 minutes on family care, whereas men spend only an average of 18 minutes.

“Unpaid work and care limits the time and ability of women to improve their skills, knowledge and business or career network . . . This unpaid labour caring for their families affects the potential of women to start careers or develop their own business, and most women are forced to quit or reduce their earnings when the two conflict,” Sophoan said.

Citing a recent study, she said the unpaid work performed by women is estimated to be worth $10 trillion per year globally.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, a UN report found that the amount of domestic work performed by Cambodian women had on average increased by 20 per cent, while domestic work done by men had increased by only 10 per cent, according to the joint press release.