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Day-care decline hinders working moms

Day-care decline hinders working moms

Under the hot sun, in the buzzing market place, I found a female vendor with a basket of vegetables in front of her, a baby in one arm clinging to her breast and two hungry children crouching behind her.

They were waiting for her to go home and cook them food at the end of her daily business venture.

This is not an unusual sight. She admits that she earns little from the business and that she continues only because she has no other possibilities of employment.

To do other things she must first of all find a baby-sitter. No employer would allow her to bring those children to the work place.

So she must stick to this mundane, less rewarding job, shuffling the children around between herself and her husband, who is a cyclo driver, or at times dragging them around from the wholesale market to the selling point.

It is mind boggling that she earns a living at all under such circumstances, with such arrangements. She admits that it is hard to concentrate on the business with the children crying, and she is always concerned about their well being; having to move around in the dirty and crowded market place day after day.

Where are the day-care centers for women like her? Perhaps it is useful to look at the history of this service.

According to the Health Ministry, the training of child care workers started in 1980 after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown in 1979.

A year later, different government ministries - at least in Phnom Penh - began to organize day-care centers inside the office compounds for their own staff. According to the Cambodia's Country Report: Women in Development, put out by the Secretariat of Sate for Women's Affairs, in 1985 there were 60 public day-care centers in Phnom Penh and ten in the provinces.

In 1988 the number increased to 80 in Phnom Penh and 20 in the provinces. Most of these centers were attached to ministries, government offices, state factories or rubber plantations.

With cuts in public spending as privatization struck in earnest in 1989 and as the peace talks gathered momentum in Jakarta and Paris, the number of day-care centers was reduced.

The government was faced with reductions of personnel and welfare services in order to conform to the standard governance of market economies.

Some ministries and government work places found it necessary to close down day-care centers. Factories, now in private hands, found it unprofitable to support day-care centers.

In 1990, there were only 30 day-care centers in Phnom Penh and two in the provinces. In 1993, as the UN-organized elections took place, they were reduced further to only five and one respectively.

According to the director of the Women's Health Department of the Secretariat of State for Women's Affairs, Dr Khieu Sereivuthea: "There are now only four day-care centers left in Phnom Penh."

All of them are poorly staffed with little equipment and are constantly under threat of closure.

"There is hardly any educational program that makes them resemble day-care centers; they are just places where working mothers drop their children," she added.

With the population of Phnom Penh estimated to be more than one million, the existing provision of day-care centers is clearly far from sufficient. It is no wonder that the market woman had to dangerously drag her children along as she goes about her daily, meager business which is, nonetheless, absolutely essential for her family's livelihood.

The Women's Health Department of the Secretariat of State for Women's Affairs is embarking on a program to informally train child care workers to work in the community.

The first training session was completed on July 30, at Tipkhapanhoa village, Samrong Krom commune, Dakor district, Phnom Penh city.

Thirty-three women from the provinces of Kampot, Svay Rieng, Takeo and Phnom Penh city graduated at the end of a three-week training course.

To mark the closure of the workshop, the Undersecretary of State for Women's Affairs Im Run made a statement to wish the graduates well in their future career as child care workers.

In her statement to the graduates, the commune and village women representatives and about a dozen male officials of the district, including the district representative, school principle, Khum and village chiefs, Khum and village police, she stressed the needs for day-care centers.

Run said: "As our country emerges from so many years of war and peace has not yet been fully achieved, more and more women are entering the workforce and are actively participating in the national reconstruction in every field."

Day-care centers and child care workers, she said, have an important role to play to ensure that women are successfully contributing to the rebuilding of the national economy.

"How can they perform their jobs properly when they have to worry about the well-being of their children back at home when they don't know if their children fell into a well or a flooded paddy field or were struck by a motorbike?" she asked.

She took the opportunity also to encourage officials of the district to create conditions for young girls to remain at school for longer periods.

She cited the gruesome drop-out rates (see Women's Affairs, Phnom Penh Post, June 17-30, 1994) of Cambodian girls, and went on to say: "Don't be narrow minded about educating women.

"Some people send their sons to school, but not their daughters. Some parents find any excuse to keep girls at home, to look after younger siblings, to do household chores or to get married. This is not good for the future of women."

"Some parents," she continued, "are afraid that their literate daughters will write love letters to their lovers," she said with a chuckle.

She then went on to tell the story of her battle to remain at school. "I met obstacles at every step," she said.

"At the end of primary school, after my intermediate certificate I was told not to go to school by my parents and was pressured by my relatives to stay home.

"But I insisted and became the first woman to gain a Baccalaureate degree in my district of Kompong Cham province, in 1962."

To conclude her speech Run looked at the male officials in the front row and asked for forgiveness if there was anything untoward in what she said.

To end the ceremony a group of happy, well-dressed children, who were pupils in the training session, put on a performance of dancing and singing. The cheery occasion went on under envious eyes of many shirtless and/or shoeless children who peered through door and windows.

Boua Chanthou has been writing about Cambodian women since 1980. She is currently a consultant to the Secretariat of State for Women's Affairs. This article was written in a personal capacity.

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