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Maternity protection: The key to dignified life for all women in Cambodia and ASEAN

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Sovann works as a domestic worker during day time and a tuk-tuk driver at night. As a single mother, she has to take her eight-year-old daughter with her in her tuk-tuk since no one can take care of her at home. OXFAM

Maternity protection: The key to dignified life for all women in Cambodia and ASEAN

Imagine you are Sovann. You are raising your daughter alone. When the Covid-19 pandemic begins, your pay as a domestic worker is cut in half. Despite people’s judgement and serious safety risks, you decide to work at night as a tuk-tuk driver to cover rent and daily expenses. You are still waiting for the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) to offer some support to workers like yourself. Until then, you work hard and bring your eight-year old daughter with you in your tuk-tuk because no one is at home to take care of her.

Even though I am a full-time working mother of two small children like Saovann, it is hard for me to imagine her situation and put myself in her shoes and those of most Cambodian working mothers in the informal sector. Unlike them, I have the privilege of having access to paid childcare as part of basic employment benefits. I cannot imagine such daily struggle and many would say I should count my blessings. My blessings? Is paid childcare God given or is it a right that all working mothers like Sovann and I should have?

Many women workers in Cambodia can relate to elements of Sovann’s story. Like her, these women take their role as mothers and caretakers seriously. Like her, they work hard to provide for their children and often for other family members. However, because of their informal labour status, they cannot access maternity protection benefits, such as childcare, that may support them during pregnancy and maternity. Approximately 90 per cent of women in the labour force in Cambodia are in this position, making them vulnerable to joblessness, debt, poverty, work-related injuries, and sickness, which reduce their ability to care for themselves and their children.

We cannot overstate the importance of maternity protection. As a fundamental labour right, it guarantees the security and health of women and their children and is key to achieving gender equality and underpinning economic growth. The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the vulnerabilities of informal women workers in ASEAN to surges in unemployment, domestic violence, unintended pregnancies, and financial insecurity while taking on more responsibilities to care for the sick and to educate their children due to school closures. For this reason, maternity protection is more critical than ever.

While progress has been made to extend social protection in Cambodia, informal women workers continue to be left outside the system. At present, the Labour Law in Cambodia only provides maternity protection benefits to women workers who have formalised work arrangements and contracts and have met the eligibility requirements for contributory social insurance or social assistance. Unfortunately, most informal women workers cannot meet these requirements, as they work in informal working arrangements, and work too irregularly to afford to make regular contributions to social insurance.

The problem is rooted in gaps in national legislation and social norms and attitudes about the role of women in Cambodian society. Like in other countries in the region, Cambodian women in their prime reproductive years (ages 25-34) are overrepresented among the poor because they are expected to perform more domestic chores and care work than men, leaving less time to work and earn. Businesses, meanwhile, still have a long way to go to create changes and working environments that empower and protect women and acknowledge the economic value they offer.

In light of the immense challenges of pregnancy and maternity for all women workers, Oxfam urges the Cambodian government to better align labour legislation and regulations with ILO Maternity Protection Convention No 183, which establishes benchmarks in five core areas: maternity leave; cash and medical benefits; health protection at the workplace for mothers and their children during pregnancy, and breastfeeding; employment protection and non-discrimination; and breastfeeding arrangements. Oxfam also urges the business community to support women workers better by providing maternity protection, challenging stereotypes that categorise women as primary caregivers, and promoting family-friendly policies and better distribution of unpaid care work in households.

Informal women workers like Sovann are the backbone of our families and society and economy. They made up of 90 per cent of informal economy workforce which is accounted for about 65 per cent of Cambodia’s GDP. Thus it is imperative that the Cambodian government achieve Universal Social Protection coverage for all its citizens and more importantly universal maternity benefits for all mothers by 2030. It is not a charitable acts but sound economic policy and duty of care owed to every citizen. Holistic maternity protection will unlock Cambodia’s trajectory to achieve its objective of being a higher middle-income economy.

I hope by 2030, all women workers, be they domestic or seasonal migrant workers, will no longer refer to maternity benefits as blessings but their rights.

This month of June, please join Oxfam and partners as we continue to campaign for better maternity protection for all women workers. You can follow the campaign on the Facebook page of Oxfam in Cambodia. Every mother counts and all women should be protected, including those in the informal economy.

Solinn Lim is Oxfam Cambodia country director.

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