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PHNOM PENH, Aug 13 2008 (IPS) - ‘Women are cloth, men are gold’. This traditional Khmer saying is quoted by many studies on gender in Cambodia as emblematic of the different value accorded to men and women in this country of 14 million.
Rooming houses, shacks and apartment blocks intermingle with large nondescript factory buildings. Legions of mainly young female workers mill around stalls selling produce, toiletries and clothing.
These women are part of a major shift in the Cambodian economy over the last decade as employment opportunities slowly move from agriculture to new industries such as services, garment export and construction.
Cambodia’s women are at the forefront of this transition.
According to the soon to be released Cambodia Gender Assessment (CGA), produced by the Ministry of Women Affairs, Cambodia’s female labour force participation rate is high by regional standards, at 71 percent of the working age population over 15 years of age.
"More than 50 percent of the active female population contribute to the economy of their country," said Dr Ing Kantha Phavi, Minister for Women’s Affairs, in an interview with IPS. "The problem is that this [contribution] is still mainly in the informal sector."
"The challenge Cambodian women face is not just to access employment, but decent, better paying employment."
While the majority – 83 percent – remain self-employed or unpaid family workers, new employment opportunities for women have opened up, particularly in the garment industry, which accounted for 1.4 percent of total female employment in 1998, rising to 5.5 percent in 2004.
This is part of what many believe has been a gradual positive shift in the situation of Cambodian women over the last decade.
"Positive trends towards greater equality include increasing girls enrolment in primary education (and resulting rises in female literacy) and expanded employment opportunities," the World Bank’s 2007 Cambodia Report noted.
Observers believe much of this progress is the result of sustained, if highly uneven, economic growth over the last few years. Poverty levels fell, according to the Bank, by 47 – 35 percent between 1994 and 2004.
At the same time, years of war and civil conflict have left Cambodia’s health, social and economic indicators among the worst in Southeast Asia.
As part of this, women continue to face serious economic, legal and social barriers, which the Bank says are part of a broader institutional bias against the poor and marginalised.
"Significant traditional inequalities persist and new ones are emerging," said the Bank, reinforced by lower standards of education and prevailing attitudes regarding what are ‘appropriate’ occupations for women.
The plight of the garment sector illustrates the broader challenge in creating sufficient employment for Cambodia’s rapidly growing labour force.
According to the CGA, approximately 62 percent of the total population and 44 percent of the labour force is under 25 years of age. Of this group 55 percent are women.
It also demonstrates the difficulties of safeguarding the economic gains made by Cambodian women, which remain fragile.
Approximately 90 percent of employees in the garment industry are women.
Despite maturing since the 1990s, the sector remains plagued by lower levels of productivity than its key competitors. The largely untrained female workforce is overseen by mainly foreign middle managers.
The recession in the U.S. – the market for 70 percent of Cambodia’s garment exports – is only one of many problems. Others include skyrocketing power prices, poor infrastructure and high compliance costs.
In developing countries like Cambodia, the garment sector often kick-starts industrialisation and is the precursor to the arrival of other manufacturing such as food processing, before itself relocating to other, lower-cost countries.
Even a minor downturn would have major economic implications.
"If textiles goes, you’ll have 300,000 people employed today on the road tomorrow, not to mention supporting businesses large and small, including mine, that would also be in trouble," said Paul Thomas, director of the freight company, Flow Forwarding Cambodia.
Some estimate up to a million people are either directly employed in the industry or depend on the pay packets of those who are.
Despite generating billions in foreign investment, Cambodia’s weak regulatory and legal frameworks and corruption are significant barriers to long-term sustainable growth.
According to Thomas, the government has given little thought to investment in alternative industry in Cambodia beyond garments and agriculture that could provide sustainable employment opportunities.
"The attitude is very much ‘let foreign businesses come and do it’, but no work has been done on paving the way and targeting what investment they want," he said.
"To raise their participation in formal employment and decision-making institutions women need skills and information about how markets and the law function," said Phavi.
"When you talk about increasing women’s participation in the labour force, you have to be very specific about what kind of participation you are talking about," said Chea Vannath, a regular commentator on social and political affairs.
"Are you talking about the informal sector where women are already heavily represented? Or 8 am to 5 pm professional jobs?"
"We are not going to increase women’s participation in professional jobs until we have things like adequate child care facilities, care for older people and salaries that keep up with the cost of living."
Two of the most significant barriers to increasing women’s participation in the workforce are their education and health status.
While Phavi maintained the government had made progress, the Cambodian Gender Assessment said Cambodia continues to have some of the weakest health indicators in the region.
"In order to participate in economic activity and contribute to the economy you have to be healthy," she said.
"The high rate of maternal mortality, while declining, is a real concern and a real challenge. We need to look at why, with all the aid we have received, this has not decreased more in the past."
"This is also a cultural problem. The woman is the last to get medical attention after the children and the father. They are in bad shape by the time they come [to the doctor]."
More immediate and obvious implications for the future employment and earning capacity of women is their educational status.
While the CGA noted progress at attaining gender parity at the primary school level, overall levels of education remain low for the nation generally and women in particular.
Although enrolment rates and gender parity "have improved at all levels of education … the female share of enrolment drops at each higher level of education," it said.
Approximately 40 percent of women aged 25-44 are illiterate (vs 22 percent for men). Although improving in younger age groups, 23 percent of young women aged 15-24 are illiterate (vs 16 percent of young men).
"The Cambodian government is committed to increasing education opportunities for women at all levels, from primary school to university, during the next five year mandate," said Phavi.
A particular focus is on increasing access to vocational education.
"We have some vocational training centres now but not enough and they are not responding to demand. This is important in the context of the garment industry, which we not only want to stay [in Cambodia], but to value add and not just use labour."
In the absence of job opportunities in Cambodia, increasing numbers of Khmer women are choosing to work overseas, mainly in Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea.
"We are not sure about the exact numbers but they are significant," said Phavi. "Although we are concerned about the conditions some of these women face overseas, we [the government] encourage labour migration due to the level of local unemployment."
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