Cambodian women have less chance of being promoted to positions of power than women in any other East Asian country, a report by the NGO Social Watch International has found.
But government officials have rejected the findings and maintained the number of females in Cambodia’s civil service has jumped by more than a third in the past four years.
The Gender Equity Index released by SWI on Monday measures gender disparity across the world in terms of literacy, economic participation and empowerment.
Thida Khus, executive director of the Cambodian NGO SILAKA, a network member of Social Watch International, said the Kingdom’s low ranking could largely be explained by social pressures that push women out of the education system.
“Many women fall through the cracks . . . culturally, women have a lot of pressure to support the family, and are forced to abandon school. The education system is not addressing the needs of these girls,” she said, calling for the government to rethink macro-economic and education policy to keep girls in school.
The index scored Cambodia 55 on an aggregate scale of 100, leaving it behind neighbours Laos, 56, Vietnam, 70, and Thailand, 71.
The Kingdom also fell well below the East Asia and Pacific regional average of 69.
Ministry of Interior secretary of state Chou Bun Eng scoffed at the findings.
“The evaluation is wrong,” she said, pointing to government data that showed that the number of women in the country’s civil service had increased by 34 per cent since a “gender mainstreaming strategy” was adopted in 2008.
In the political arena, female participation had also dramatically increased in the past decade, with the ratio of women elected as commune councillors rising from eight to 16 per cent between 2002 and 2007, she said.
“There are women in decision-making positions in almost all the ministries, and there are at least female deputies in all the ministries,” Chou Ben Eng said, but conceded women had yet to rise above deputy positions.
“As they have the chance to learn, year by year, when there is retirement of male officials, maybe they can take over,” she said.
Opposition Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua said she recognised that some major appointments of women in important positions had been made, but they were not indicators that Cambodia was improving in gender equity.
“They are political appointments and have not allowed these high-ranking officials to make major differences for women and for society as a whole,” she said.
These appointees had “said nothing, done nothing” for women who were victims of land grabs and forced evictions, she said, and the heads of the parliamentary commissions on human rights and women’s affairs had “done close to nothing in terms of showing their accountability to women”.
But Mu Sochua said there had were positive signs as well.
“Women in the private sector – banking, telecommunications, tourism, medium-size enterprises – the number is increasing. There are more women in private schools.”
Still, she echoed concerns that women remained at a disadvantage because of a low quality of education, which led to “limited skills for employment”.
Adviser to the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports Bouy Bunna said that while the number of female and male students in primary school was almost similar, the number of females began to decrease from grade seven.
“The number of female students goes down in middle school, high school and university,” he said, adding this was due to the tradition of parents giving priority to boys in education and concerns for their daughters’ safety at universities.