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Achieving an equal future

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As deputy governor of Taveng district in Ratanakkiri province, Kaping Pich (not pictured) is one of the role models for her Brao indigenous community. Taveng District Administration

Achieving an equal future

March 8 is International Women’s Day. Today we honor women’s achievements in all spheres of life and bring attention to women’s rights for the benefit of all. This year, it is dedicated to women in leadership: achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world. It couldn’t be more timely, as women stand at the frontline of the pandemic, combatting the virus both at the workplace and at home.

Covid-19 triggered not only an international public health emergency but also a socio-economic upheaval. Across the world, the crisis is pushing many families into poverty and increasing existing inequalities. The loss of jobs and livelihoods is particularly dire in sectors often occupied by women.

Cambodia is no different. Industries dominated by women and girls, such as garment and tourism sectors have been hardest hit. Women make up almost 90 per cent of the estimated 750,000 garment factory workers in Cambodia. Recent government statistic showed that 526 garment factories have been suspended and around 349,000 workers have lost their job since early 2020.

Many more women and girls are in informal work than men and are the first to lose their jobs. Women saw a greater reduction in average weekly earnings from on average $126 before Covid-19 to $66 in July 2020 and $51 in October 2020, losing more than half of their income since the pandemic started. In Cambodia, women-headed households living in poverty are more likely to remain in poverty.

Unpaid care work has increased. Self-quarantine and social distancing sharply expanded domestic and care work by 35 per cent within the household. In Cambodia, studies show that women carry the burden of such needs. Equally worrisome is that the unpaid domestic andcare work start at an early age. With schools closed, girls are asked to take on more domestic responsibilities, cutting their time dedicated to learning. Once girls drop out of school, it is harder for them to return to and continue their education.

The time is now to build an equal future.

How can we transform the Covid-19 crisis into an opportunity? How can investments in gender equality build a more inclusive and equitable Cambodia? What might this look like in practice?

Kaping Pich is one of the role models for her Brao indigenous community in Ta Veng Leu commune in Ratanakkiri province’s Ta Veng district. Pich is now Taveng district deputy governor. In this role she has inspired many young girls and people in her community. Back in her school days, her village only had a primary school. The closest secondary school was almost 50km from her village. She almost gave up her education. Fortunately, through a government scholarship, she was able to continue her education in the province’s Banlung town. Despite many challenges, Pich persevered until she finished secondary school and got a job. Pich has worked very hard and studied at the same time to get where she is today. She values education highly. One of her wishes is to get a higher education. Pich’s hopes are similar for her community. She said: “I want to see more girls, especially those who come from an ethnic minority background, to get a higher education, to be agents of change, to help diminish gender-based norms, and to help themselves and their families.”

When the government sets out to design its economic recovery plan, it must address inequality. A gender-responsive economic recovery would help accelerate progress towards Cambodia’s aspirations for a middle-income country by 2030 and achieve the Cambodian Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

To build an equal future, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres has called on leaders to put in place six key building blocks:

First, ensure equal representation – from company boards to parliaments, from higher education to public institutions – through special measures and quotas. In Cambodia, we need more leaders like Kaping Pich to support young emerging women leaders in her community and in her workplace.

Second, invest significantly in the care economy and social protection, and redefine gross domestic product to make work in the home visible and counted.

Third, remove barriers to women’s full inclusion in the economy, including through access to the labour market, property rights and targeted credit and investments.

Fourth, repeal all discriminatory laws in all spheres – from labour and land rights to personal status and protections against violence.

Fifth, each country should enact an emergency response plan to address violence against women and girls, and follow through with funding, policies and political will to end this scourge.

Sixth, shift mindsets, raise public awareness and call out systemic bias. In Cambodia, we can start by raising boys and girls equally for household chores and care work and addressing negative social and gender norms that discriminate against women and girls.

Pandemic recovery is our chance to chart a new and equal path. Together, we can achieve an equal future.

Pauline Tamesis is UN Resident Coordinator in Cambodia. Sophea Khun is Programme Analyst of UN Women in Cambodia.

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