Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda is one of Cambodia’s priorities for our Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2022. Just last month, Cambodia hosted the first Asia-Europe Forum on Women, Peace and Security, as a side event of the 13th Asia-Europe Summit (ASEM13), and all ASEM partners have extended full support to such initiative and encouraged for its continuation.

As far as the Covid-19 pandemic is concerned, a pertinent question is being raised on whether the WPS agenda should also include women’s roles in the recovery efforts from the pandemic.

In addressing this question, we need to understand the words “peace” and “security” beyond their literal sense. Peace and security have impacts on both men and women alike; therefore they should equally contribute to addressing these matters for effective outcomes.

“Women” represent a workforce with no fewer potentials than men in our modern world. Some statistics show the present global gender ratio at over 101.68 males per 100 females. In Cambodia, women comprise over 51 per cent of our population.

Therefore, it would be a great loss to our societies to not include women as part of our manpower or human resources to address issues and bring progress in the political-security, economic and socio-cultural spheres.

The word «Peace» is much more than the absence of war involving armed conflicts.Comprehensive peace is the full spiritual and physical freedom from all kinds of threats and disturbances. It is an environment where people can live a decent life free from wants; that you don’t have to worry about your next meal, free from fear, violence, torture, discrimination and the list goes on. It is a generally agreed wisdom that “there is no sustainable and inclusive development without peace; and there is also no peace without sustainable and inclusive development”.

Likewise, there is a general agreement that “security” has many dimensions and not just the absence of the threats from armed conflicts. It essentially means the state of being free from all kinds of danger, including health and economic wellbeing. We all have come across and used too often the terms food security, water security, information security, health security, which the world is trying to enhance in light of the Covid-19 crisis.

The unprecedented crisis has impacted the whole spectrum of society, starting from the danger to lives, disruption of our economies and sustainable development, destroying our livelihoods, and endangering peace and security as a result of paralysing social infrastructure and human capital. Women, in particular, have been disproportionately affected by the unprecedented crisis. In Cambodia, for example, average households in the garment and footwear sector, whose 80 per cent of workers are women, lost one-third of their income.

Therefore, the WPS agenda is very much relevant to the pandemic and other crises, because it recognises the fundamental role of women in the prevention, resolution, relief and recovery from the challenges relating to peace and security.

Another important question is, “How can we advance action on the WPS Agenda in national Covid-19 responses?”

Here, we should advocate for a different perspective of women. A view of women not as victims of crises, vulnerable to risks, and in need of protection, but as active participants and constructive contributors to effective solutions and social progress. This requires top-level political recognition of the important role of women and policy to leverage their potentials,through empowering them to participate substantively in addressing socio-economic and political-security implications of Covid-19 at all levels. At the same time, women themselves should not surrender to the negative perception of women as the weaker sex; and women should be willing to take on the challenges before them.

In Cambodia, since the outbreak of Covid-19, women have been at the forefront of prevention and response efforts—from frontline service delivery to the highest levels of decision-making. We have women leadership and pro-active participation at the national vaccination campaign, resources mobilisation, and even for the establishment of the treatment and quarantine centres, as well as recruitment of volunteer medical staff.

Despite the pandemic and the fact that some of our troops had succumbed to Covid-19, Cambodia’s commitment to the UN Peacekeeping Operations remains unshakable. Women’s role is always strongly highlighted in Cambodia’s participation in the peacekeeping missions. Cambodia ranks 13th out of 122 countries and 2nd in ASEAN in contributing to the deployment of women peacekeepers. As of March 2021, Cambodia is the 27th largest contributor of uniformed personnel to UN peacekeeping.

Cambodia currently deploys 767 peacekeepers, 95 of whom are women, to the UN peacekeeping operations in Abyei, the Central African Republic, Lebanon, Mali, Sudan and South Sudan.

Indeed, cultural bias and systemic discrimination can stand in the way of women’s participation in activities outside of the comfort zone, and not just in the relief and recovery efforts and peacebuilding. Some social norms and traditions may in some ways restrict women’s participation to play pro-active and leadership roles in society. In Cambodia, we still have a prevailing mindset, which sees the best for women is for them to remain good homemakers.

Higher education for girls, in many cases, is still considered a luxury; and for families with limited resources, priority for education would most likely be given to boys. But this is changing, thanks to the government’s policies that aim to empower women and girls for their meaningful participation in all sectors.

It is not by chance that Cambodia has chosen the WPS agenda as one of the priorities for its ASEAN Chairmanship in 2022 under the theme “ASEAN ACT: Address Challenges Together”. We have a strong belief that lasting peace and prosperity can only be fully achieved with participation from the whole of society, including women and girls.

Cambodia plans to organise the Second ASEAN Women Leaders’ Summit on Women Entrepreneurship next year. In ASEAN, there is a general view that micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) are an important driver for post-Covid-19 recovery as they constitute between 85 and 99 per cent of businesses, and the majority are owned by women.

For Cambodia MSMEs contribute significantly to our economy, accounting for 70 per cent of employment and 58 per cent of our GDP, and roughly 61 per cent are women-owned. Thus, the discussion on women’s entrepreneurship could not come at a better time.

Cambodia through the ASEAN Committee on Women will lead the development of the ASEAN Regional Plan of Action (POA) on Women, Peace and Security in collaboration with Indonesia, and we expect to adopt the POA in 2022. Cambodia looks forward to working closely with all relevant stakeholders to promote the interests and roles of women in conflict prevention, conflict resolution, peacebuilding as well as in the implementation of the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework.

Eat Sophea is secretary of state for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and ASEAN SOM Leader of Cambodia.

The article is adapted from the speech delivered at the Second ASEAN-Australia Women, Peace and Security Dialogue on Progressing Implementation on the Road to Recovery from Covid-19 held on November 9.