(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 08 March 2016)
Huge strides have been made for women’s progress in Cambodia over the last couple of decades. Women’s presence is strongly felt within the workforce and more women have begun to climb the career ladder and assume higher-level positions than ever before.
Today we see women dominating in one of Cambodia’s largest industries – the garment sector – and women taking up office jobs, becoming entrepreneurs, obtaining positions within local government and even becoming parliamentarians.
Women’s participation in grassroots-level activism is also strongly felt. Among the throngs of demonstrators that routinely take to the streets in Cambodia to demand their rights in the face of widespread violations, growing numbers of women are joining the ranks.
Women activists and human rights defenders are organising, mobilising, and leading advocacy initiatives throughout the country. From Phnom Penh to the remotest of provinces, women are leading communities to demand their rights. The overwhelming female presence in the struggle for the recognitions of human rights in Cambodia is undeniable.
International Women’s Day (IWD), observed across the globe today, celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. In Cambodia – a country where historically women have been discouraged from participating in social and political actions – there is much to celebrate. Women are increasingly playing an important role in community-level activism, showing just how far Cambodia has moved forward in terms of women’s empowerment.
This year, one initiative that is taking place to celebrate IWD is a campaign to #PledgeforParity, which calls on individuals to pledge to take a concrete step in terms of purposeful action to help achieve gender parity.
While women’s progress in Cambodia is certainly laudable, women continue to be discriminated against and underrepresented in key decision-making roles in public and political life. Parity, unfortunately, remains out of reach.
For example, the International Federation of Journalists has found that although high numbers of women have begun to join the traditionally male-dominated media, they remain significantly underrepresented in key decision-making roles.
Similarly, in Cambodia’s garment sector, while women make up 86 per cent of the workforce, a survey conducted by the Solidarity Center has found the majority of union leaders to be male.
The lack of female leadership within the industry means that pressing gender-related issues affecting the majority of the workforce – for example, maternity rights, poor sanitation and the gender wage gap – are largely overlooked within the labour movement.
Of great concern is the lack of women’s representation in politics. The last National Assembly elections, held in July 2013, saw the first decrease in women’s representation in parliament in 20 years and a failure to meet the Millennium Development Goal of 30 per cent female representation in parliament by 2015.
The situation has only worsened since. Only recently the National Assembly has come under fire for a lack of commitment to ensuring women’s representation among lawmakers, as the number of female parliamentarians decreased to below 20 per cent in 2015.
Indeed, the glaring absence of women in influential roles in Cambodia is largely due to a lack of understanding of – and commitment to – gender mainstreaming. This is problematic considering prevailing traditional attitudes that discriminate against women.
Revealing the less than favourable attitude towards female leaders, Ath Thorn, president of the garment industry’s largest independent union – the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union – has remarked that its members are reluctant to elect women leaders as they are viewed as less capable.
It’s not just within leadership where Cambodia is failing its women. Gender-based violence remains a key concern in Cambodia. A report released by the World Health Organization late last year revealed domestic abuse of women to be a pressing concern in Cambodia, with over a fifth of women suffering physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner. Equally as alarming, a UN survey in 2013 found that one in five Cambodian men admitted to having raped a woman.
To give credit where credit is due, the royal government of Cambodia has taken decisive and positive steps regarding gender empowerment. The government has a specific national gender equality strategy – the National Action Plan to Prevent Violence Against Women 2014-2018 – which focuses on women’s economic empowerment and preventing gender-based violence.
In addition, a number of civil society organisations continue to work tirelessly to bridge the gender gap by supporting and empowering women.
Such efforts have been the driving force behind women’s progress in the Kingdom. Yet, much work remains to be done. It’s not just about fulfilling quotas. We need to begin focusing on the quality of women’s participation, as well as the quantity.
In light of the upcoming elections, it is vital that concrete measures are taken to ensure women’s participation in decision-making roles in both public and political spheres. It’s time for Cambodian women to take up their places as leaders.
On the long road ahead in the fight for gender equality, I pledge to continue to challenge gender bias, and inspire and empower women in Cambodia to become leaders in their fields. I call upon all Cambodians to join me, and #PledgeforParity, to ensure a more inclusive and equal Cambodia.
Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.