Women are the mothers of the world. They are the hope of the next generation. Their roles in the family and society are essential and could not be overstated. Without women, the world will be meaningless. In many parts of the world, women are the primary caretakers of the young and elderly. They are the crucial source of early education and care and the key driver of motivation and creativity. Their roles and presence are indispensable in all societies.

Despite their roles, however, many women remain neglected, subjugated and disempowered. Their roles tend to be downgraded by their community and society. In some parts of the world, women are discriminated against and unfairly treated, due largely to traditions, social norms and religious practices and beliefs.

In Cambodia, the roles and values of women have been increasingly recognised. Historically, women were restricted and their places in the family and society were extremely limited. Not only were they usually perceived as incompetent, unskilled and unable to move beyond the kitchen or household chores, but they were also discouraged, discriminated and often condemned by their gender, social class and roles.

Positive trends in women’s participation in society

Nowadays, many Cambodian women have received the social attention and recognition they deserve. Due to their knowledge, skills, capability and important roles in society, some Cambodian women have become leaders in their own right. For example, Cambodia now has one deputy prime minister who is a woman.

There are also many other Cambodian women who are leaders of private companies, universities, think tanks, non-governmental organisations, civil society organisations and other institutions. They are testimony to the fact that women also have the capacity to lead and meaningfully contribute to society. Their places are no longer confined to the kitchen as traditionally believed. They are less constrained by their gender and social class.

In terms of education, more Cambodian female students have had the opportunity to receive it. The education congress report published in 2021 by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport showed that 48 per cent of primary school students enrolled in Cambodian public schools were female (49.4 per cent for private schools). In public lower secondary schools, female students accounted for 52.5 per cent (51.3 per cent for private schools), and in public upper secondary schools, 54.7 per cent were female students (51.2 per cent for private schools).

A similar trend was observed in higher education where female students represented 50.8 per cent of the total student population of 201,900 in the academic year 2019-2020. These statistics suggest positive developments in female student enrollment in different levels of education. A high enrollment rate for female students certainly provides hope for the future of an inclusive and sustainable Cambodian society.

However, while there are positive trends that deserve commendation, the issues surrounding gender inequality and women empowerment should deserve greater attention and be placed on top of the agenda and discussions at all levels.

What more needs to be done?

At the national level, policymakers and decision makers need to keep in mind the need to support and empower Cambodian girls and women when it comes to policy formulation. Women need to be treated equally if not better than men. In some cases, women need to be strongly encouraged and given priority so that they can feel supported and empowered to step out of their comfort zone. Women empowerment should come first and be the talk of the town. “Women first” – a policy or approach that prioritises women and their interests – needs to be promoted and normalised.

At the institutional level, company or organisation leaders play a pivotal role in empowering women. They need to understand and be sympathetic about the additional challenges women usually face due to their gender, family responsibilities and other commitments. Institutional leaders also need to be knowledgeable about the strategies and mechanisms to support women in the workplace. They need to encourage a women-friendly working environment and create a safe and supportive space for women to learn, grow and make a positive impact on their company and community.

At the community and family level, there is a need to raise awareness of the crucial roles of women in their family, community and society. Understanding women’s value and contributions is a first step in promoting and empowering women. When members of a family or community hold women in high regard and seek opportunities to support them, a conducive environment for women to grow and develop will be fostered, which in turn will enable women to reach their full potential. As a result, women’s contributions in different spheres of society will become more substantial.

At the individual level, women themselves need to understand their self-worth, value and roles in society. They need to step up to support other women in difficult situations in order to build a strong support network for women and promote women empowerment. It is the women who need to fight for their own rights, freedom and voices. They cannot wait and hope that their identity, vision and rights will be respected. They must work hard to earn respect and recognition from their family, community and society. To this end, women need to enhance their education, qualifications and contributions. After all, they are the architect of their own destiny.

No doubt, women are an indispensable part of every society, yet their essential roles are often neglected or belittled. The celebration of the International Women’s Day on March 8 every year provides an excellent opportunity for us, both men and women, to remind ourselves how important women are and how they can contribute to making a difference to their family, community, society and the world.

In Cambodian society, even though women and their roles have always been perceived as important, their actual status in the family and society may not have been given the attention and priority that women rightfully deserve. Thus, it is imperative that all concerned stakeholders, particularly the government, institutional leaders, the community and family members, consider women empowerment and gender equality a priority and find ways to work together to uplift women and empower them to achieve their full potential. Empowering Cambodian women is tantamount to empowering and improving Cambodian society.

Kimkong Heng is a co-founder and lead editor of the Cambodian Educati​o​n Forum. He is also an Australia Awards scholar and a visiting senior research fellow at the Cambodia Development Centre.