Last year, Cambodia served as the ASEAN chair for the third time under the theme “ASEAN ACT: Addressing Challenges Together”. The theme underscores the bloc’s spirit of “Togetherness” as one community and the common will in ASEAN collective endeavour to address and overcome challenges facing the Southeast Asian region. “Togetherness” emphasises the action-oriented approach of ASEAN based on openness, good faith, solidarity and harmony within the ASEAN family.

Under this theme, Cambodia steered ASEAN’s collective efforts to accomplish these important tasks, especially in expediting the building process of a peaceful, stable, secure, equitable, strong, and inclusive, sustainable and prosperous ASEAN community, in accordance with the core spirit of ASEAN: “One Vision, One Identity, One Community,” underpinning ASEAN’s engagement with the wider region and regional responses to the impacts and uncertainties posed by regional and global challenges. These include the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and sustainable development, rivalries between major powers, protectionism, territorial disputes, trade wars and technology rivalries, among other traditional and non-traditional security threats.

Cambodia effectively navigated through these challenges that have galvanised benefits for the peoples of ASEAN. The success is a result of a well-designed priorities policy, including ‘regional contribution to global peace through peacekeeping operation and women empowerment – ones of the 2022 ASEAN priorities – with a particular focus on women, peace and security (WPS) agenda to keep the momentum of ASEAN’s proactive contribution to UN peacekeeping operation (PKO) with active engagement of women, and on strengthening the role of women in ASEAN economy and to reduce the disparity of women equality in the region, considering women capital development.

Prime Minister Hun Sen articulated, “Women are at the heart of families and communities. If women are strong, so are our ASEAN family and community.” This means that mainstreaming the WPS agenda in all ASEAN community building process is of paramount importance for the bloc.

On women’s role in PKO, the prime minister stated: “Cambodia will continue to promote a positive image of ASEAN on the international stage and keep the region active in peacekeeping missions under the UN, including mine clearance … As we continue on this journey together, I am confident that ASEAN is well prepared to overcome all the unprecedented challenges in order to prove once again that we have the determination and capability to further strengthen and promote peace, stability, security and prosperity in the region for the wellbeing of our peoples.”

Cambodia attaches great importance to the full and effective implementation of the Regional Plan of Action on WPS and the Declaration on Building more Sustainable, Inclusive and Resilient Future through Unlocking Women’ Entrepreneurship in ASEAN.

The WPS agenda has greatly been enhanced. The interests and the roles of women are promoted in conflict prevention, conflict resolution, peace building as well as in the implementation of the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework (ACRF). As a matter of fact, from 2006 to the present, Cambodia has sent 692 women of 8,951 peacekeepers, under the UN umbrella, to nine countries: Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, the Central African Republic, Lebanon, Cyprus, Syria, Mali and Yemen. According to the UN, Cambodia ranks 28th out of 122 countries and 3rd in ASEAN after Indonesia and Malaysia. On world class, Cambodia ranks 13th and ranks second only to Indonesia among ASEAN member states for sending female peacekeepers to UN’s POK. The achievement is highly commendable.

On women’s role in promoting economic development, the premier pointed out: “In order for women to participate in socio-economic activities fully and comprehensively, strengthening their economic capacity and empowerment is crucial and indispensable. Therefore, the governments of all ASEAN countries have the obligation to ensure that women have equal access to education, skills training, ownership in financial management, rights to participate in decision-making processes and leadership, so that they have full opportunities in socio-economic, commercial and political aspects.”

It is broadly seen that ASEAN is a region with high economic potentials and rapid development, mainly thanks to active participation of women. The economies of ASEAN countries depend heavily on Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), led by women. As a matter of fact, in Cambodia, MSMEs account for 98 per cent of the total number of enterprises, which contribute around 58 per cent to the national economy, and create around 73 per cent of total jobs. On this note, women establish and manage this sector approximately 61 per cent of the total number of the MSMEs. With this fact, the Cambodian government has identified and promoted women as the backbone of national socio-economic development, by increasing investment in gender equality and promoting the role of women in the development across sectors, and at all levels.

To ensure the successful implementation of the ARCF, Cambodia successfully hosted the 2nd ASEAN Women Leaders’ Summit under the theme “Building a More Sustainable, Inclusive and Resilient Future: Unlocking Women’s Entrepreneurship in ASEAN” to encourage cooperation and joint commitment in promoting women’s entrepreneurship as a key driving force for sustainable and resilient socio-economic recovery and development towards building a common future and prosperity. ASEAN leaders have recognised and valued the inclusion of women’s role into the core of the efforts towards sustainable and comprehensive socio-economic recovery after the Covid-19 crisis. As a result, the Cambodia-initiated ASEAN Declaration on “Building a More Sustainable, Inclusive and Resilient Future: Unlocking Women’s Entrepreneurship in ASEAN” was adopted by the ASEAN leaders.

It is truly recognised that women continue and will continue to play a crucial role, especially in recovering and boosting sustainable, inclusive and resilient ASEAN economic growth. However, this requires solidarity and cooperation on creating a favourable ecosystem for the growth of women entrepreneurs, as well as collaboration to address challenges. It remains to be seen that women entrepreneurs in ASEAN have been facing many obstacles in enterprise development and management, especially in rural areas. Moreover, most women start businesses at micro or small levels and in the informal sector, as the vast majority has yet to be formally registered, making it hard for governments to identify and provide necessary supports.

Last year, Cambodia proposed four recommendations to address these challenges. They include 1) Creating an ecosystem that responds to the needs of the MSMEs and women entrepreneurs, as well as the improvement of the legal framework and social mindset that hinders women’s potentials in the economy; 2) Focus on human resource development, through upskilling and re-skilling programmes for women and girls, as well as STEM programs; 3) Improving the financial and digital inclusion for women and girls, by promoting financial and digital literacy and facilitating accesses to credits, market and information in starting and developing businesses; and 4) expanding the coverage of the social protection system, family welfare protection policies and responses to family care and domestic works of women, as well as public investment in healthcare and social welfare.

However, the end does not justify the means. More needs to be done. Therefore, in order for ASEAN to follow upon the implementation of the Cambodian recommendations, and to further unlock the potentials of women entrepreneurs and make it more convenient to seize new opportunities and potentials, Cambodia should consider the WPS agenda and the role of women in boosting economic development for a peaceful, secure, stable, resilient and inclusive, prosperous and sustainable growth in the region to be one of the top priorities this year. By so doing, we can push good momentum forwards to make ASEAN the epicentrum of growth for a successful ASEAN community building 2025 and beyond. ASEAN should vigorously continue a platform to inspire and motivate women in the ASEAN region as testament to the commitments of the ASEAN leaders in the cause of achieving regional gender equality.

The WPS and women empowerment are of paramount importance for Cambodia and ASEAN. We should make stronger commitment to make women more relevant in the ASEAN community building process. ‘If women matter, ASEAN matters’. Long live the women of Cambodia! Long live ASEAN women!

Lourn Saboeun is former minister counsellor of the Cambodian embassy to Belgium and the mission to the EU.

The views expressed are his own.