International Women's Issues

International Women’s Issues: Economic Empowerment in Cambodia

In this column’s perpetual continent-hopping, we’re back in Asia this week ““ Southeast Asia, specifically. And when one thinks of women’s rights in Southeast Asia, human trafficking and sex work automatically come to mind. But that’s not what I’m focusing on this week, at least not directly. When I first started this column, I gave myself a bit of a mandate ““ all issues are women’s issues, and focusing solely on topics that reduce women to their sexual functions does a disservice to women overall. In recent weeks, I’ve written about fistula and sexual violence, issues that either only or hugely disproportionately affect women. So this week, I’m going for something more positive. I am sure, at some point, I will be writing about human trafficking and sex work in Southeast Asia.

Instead, I’m going to focus on economic empowerment in one of the more impoverished nations in that region, Cambodia. For the past twenty years, Cambodia has been a relatively peaceful country, but before that, the country was occupied by the Vietnamese for a decade, and, much worse, held captive by the brutal dictator Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979. Pol Pot was responsible for the Cambodian genocide, during which time over one-fifth of the population was killed ““ about 1.7 million people. Now, over thirty years later, the perpetrators of that genocide are being brought to some form of justice in criminal courts, and the country is a constitutional monarchy, having both a Prime Minister (who’s been in power since 1985) and a king.

Women’s rights in Cambodia are a bit complicated. The literacy rate for women is 64% vs 84% for men, which means that fewer girls are being educated, and those that are remain in school for a shorter period of time. Women are hugely underrepresented in political office, and although there are laws requiring equal pay for equal work regardless of gender, women are frequently paid less than men for doing the same work. On the other hand, scholars state that due to the influence of Buddhism and a much more egalitarian view of marriage, women are treated as “generally equal” to men, and that gender is only one of many factors that determine social hierarchy. The genocide also strongly impacted the role of women in the country, as far more men were killed than women, turning hundreds of thousands of wives and children into widows and orphans. However, the genocide did also necessitate women taking on previously unheard of roles in society, as there were simply no men left in certain parts of the country. Thirty years on, however, the male population is coming back, and some of the advancements made in women’s roles in society in the wake of the genocide are receding.

Although Cambodia’s economy is steadily growing, women face a unique set of challenges in terms of economic empowerment. In addition to the literacy rate and pay disparity mentioned above, there is significant hiring discrimination against pregnant women and women with small children. Furthermore, land rights are hard to secure, especially for rural women and widows. There is also a stigma against people with HIV/AIDS, and women in Cambodia are increasingly contracting that disease.

There is also the issue of the garment factories. When you get a moment, take your shirt off, and check where it was made. There’s a halfway decent chance it was Cambodia – I know I’ve purchased inexpensive clothes with “made in Cambodia” embroidered on the label. Half the country’s exports are textiles and clothing. The garment factories are a two-edged sword when it comes to women’s economic empowerment. Yes, it is an alternative to sex work, and women make more money in the garment factories than they do working in the fields, but at the same time, Cambodian women face regular harassment from male supervisors, and unfair and unsafe working conditions. Textile workers reported that women are hired rather than men, because men will complain and strike, and women will not. Additionally, the garment industry is notoriously susceptible to economic change, with over 30,000 garment workers in Cambodia being let go since 2009, the vast majority of whom are female.

So that’s the situation. What are the solutions?

While I’ve been focusing almost exclusively on local NGOs in my previous pieces, seeing as the Cambodian Ministry of Women’s Affairs is lead by a woman and the management team is all female, let’s see what they’ve been doing in the field of economic empowerment. The Ministry has been operating on a series of Five Year Plans, called Neary Rattanak, focusing on economic empowerment, and increasing women’s education as well as representation in local and national politics. On the economic front, the Ministry has held workshops all over the country, but especially in rural areas, on income-generating skills  – everything from rug-weaving to motorcycle repair. They are giving out microloans for small enterprises and entrepreneurial projects, providing capital so women can start their own businesses. Additionally, they’ve set up several centers across the country, and trained staff at each center run workshops about how to become female economic leaders in their communities.

This is not to say that there are not NGOs in Cambodia focused on women’s economic empowerment. There is the Cambodian League for the Protection and Defense of Human Rights, or LICADHO, whose goals include ensuring women have the freedom to attend school and chose their own job, as well as freedom from subservience and discrimination. They aim for these goals by attempting to ensure that women have access to legal support when necessary, and by training community leaders about gender equality and women’s rights.

There is also AFESIP Cambodia, Acting for Women in Distressing Situations, a group focused mainly on supporting the recovery of trafficked and/or abused women. A key part of this support is vocational training, and indeed, AFESIP offers a training course on how to become a garment factory worker ““ how to safely operate a sewing machine, and cut and sew clothes. They also offer life skills classes, with a civics component which includes educating women about their rights. These programs are targeted towards women who have been victims of abuse, rehabilitating a part of the population who may otherwise be ostracized.

Economic empowerment is important on many levels ““ it is a key tool in the fight for equality and is integral to a country’s recovery from tragedy. It is also an essential element in decreasing the prevalence of sex work and trafficking ““ if a woman or girl can make a living wage in her own country, doing work with a low chance of violence and abuse, it is less likely that sex work will enter the picture. The garment factories aren’t perfect, though there is a nascent labor union movement primarily composed of women.  Cambodia as a whole has come incredibly far recently, and with an increased focus on women’s economic empowerment, they will continue to do well.

As both next Monday and the Monday after that are holidays in the US, this post will be on vacation, where your author is going to devote a lot of time to reading about ponies and rainbows and anything other than the immense challenges that women face worldwide. However! I will be back in 2012, and, as always, am eager to write about whatever may interest you. So please let me know in the comments!


AFESIP Cambodia: Vocational Skills Training
Cambodian Women’s Committee: Building Power for Cambodian Women
CIA World Factbook: Cambodia
Ministry of Women’s Affairs: Economic Development
Putting Gender Back in the Picture: Rethinking Women’s Economic Empowerment
Women in Cambodian Society
Women in Garment Factories Help Cambodia Out of Poverty

Leave a Reply