Koh Kong province is considered the rising star of Cambodia’s west coast. The province is known for its beautiful beaches, mangrove forests, and greenest along Cardamom Mountains. The province hosts special economic zones which are home to multi-million dollar car manufacturing, electricity spare parts, and textiles and garment factories.

From the city centre, it took us 40 minutes along the muddy road to meet one key informant, Thor Sreymeas, a 34-year-old garment worker and a mother of two.

Sreymeas dropped out in grade three due to extreme poverty and family responsibilities. Before she moved to Koh Kong in 2016, she worked at a sugar farm in Kampong Chhnang province where she met her husband and later moved to Koh Kong after they married.

We sit down with Sreaymean and her beautiful family inside her old wooden, but cosy house. Sreymeas is on maternity leave, when we interviewed her, and just a week away from delivering a baby boy. When asked if she is ready, she responded with a big smile: “Yes, I am ready”.

She told us, with her beautiful smiles: “I am ready and least worried compared to when I gave birth to my first child. Back then, we were very worried because we did not have any money. We needed to borrow money for labour. We were very worried back then.

“I now have an NSSF card after working with a factory here in Koh Kong. This card [NSSF] will help me cover my labour- expenses. I’ll also get a $100 allowance from Prime Minister Hun Sen.”

She also explained to us the payment process and required supporting documents. Sreymeas is very knowledgeable about NSSF coverages and benefits. When asked how she got to know all those things, she told us she has attended training series provided by NSSF agents and union representatives, the word of mouth from fellow workers, and her experience giving birth to her second child.

Sreymeas’ story and the positive impacts of NSSF coverage on her resilience is an eye opening for us. This strongly reasserts the urgent need for and importance of inclusive social protection for the Cambodian people, especially women and mothers.

What Sreymeas and other women who share the employment status is benefiting from this social scheme came along away with the Government of Cambodia political will to ensure an inclusive development and sustainable development goals. It requires supportive policy framework, the Social Protection Policy Framework 2016-2025, the oversight institution, National Council for Social Protection, and the public investment.

The progress so far is commendable despite being relatively new to social protection. The National Social Security Fund is currently covered 1.4, out of 4.1 million wage workers. And for the past 28 months, $837.05 million was allocated to the social assistance policy like IDPoor programme and cash-based transfer covering 706,060 poor and vulnerable households across the Kingdom. The Cambodia’s government also spent a total of $20.07 million between June 2019 to October 2022 supporting 181,542 pregnant women and 106,820 children under two years old.

Cambodia has also made a new chapter in its social protection systems by introducing a pension fund in 2022 for private sector employees, a scheme which used to be only available to public servants, and promises social security benefit to sex workers by 2023.

Sreymeas is more fortunate because she is covered by NSSF. But, there are tens of thousands of women and mothers who are not yet included in social protection systems.

There are street vendors, the majority of whom are women and mothers, who are not yet included in the social protection systems. There are small scale farmers, despite their long-standing contribution to our food security, who have not yet benefited from the policy. And of course, youth and working age students who are not provided with unemployment and healthcare benefits. And more groups of population, you name it.

Prime Minister Hun Sen is visionary for saying that social protection “would not harm the economy, but would improve the health and development of the Kingdom’s workforce”. Investing in social protections is a win-win policy.

While it might seems a little too early to rush in, expanding social schemes, investing more on social protection betting on the fiscal space, international experiences look promising and encouraging.

A study on investments in social protection in Japan, Mongolia, South Korea and Thailand found positive impacts on GDP. In Japan, one additional dollar spent on social protection generates an accumulated expansion of GDP by $1.7 after two and a half years. South Korea has the highest multiplier effect, with an accumulated increase of $3 after 10 quarters. In Mongolia, the accumulated multiplier effect is $1.5 after eight quarters. All were driven by the effects on household consumptions and private investment, thanks to investment in social protection.

In Cambodia, the joint impact assessment of the General Secretariat of the National Social Protection Council (GS-NSPC) and UNDP found that Cambodia’s cash transfer programme alone contributed to 0.45 per cent of GDP growth, reduced poverty by 3.4 per cent and the unemployment rate by 0.62 per cent in 2021. The National Social Protection Council is now collecting inputs to prepare “National Social Protection Framework 2023”. OXFAM and partner organisations are ready to bring the voice of the community we represent to the policy formulation and dialogues.

Building inclusive social protection systems is critical to our future generations and economic competitiveness. Just like you, I am optimistic that Cambodia can do it now.

Sophoan Phean is national director of OXFAM in Cambodia

The views expressed in this article are solely her own.