Claire Van der Vaeren is the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Cambodia.
08 Mar 2014
In observance of International Women’s Day, 8 March 2014
International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the progress Cambodia has made towards women’s empowerment and gender equality. Equality for women and girls is a human right, enshrined under the Constitution of Cambodia and within the international human rights treaties Cambodia has ratified. Ensuring gender equality has a powerful transformative effect on developmental progress as a whole.
In prioritizing good governance in its Rectangular Strategy, the Royal Government has marked the path for Cambodia to move towards its stated goals of growth, employment, equity, and efficiency. In this path, gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls are key determinants of whether development will be inclusive and sustainable. Indeed, only with the fuller participation of women and girls can Cambodia reach its development goals.
Cambodia’s young female population represents a development potential that has yet to be realized. When equal to boys in their safety and access to education and health, girls grow into women who undertake roles that are socially more advanced and economically more productive than when such equality is denied. Investments in girls and women enable them to assume leadership roles in society and allow them to become drivers of economic growth, thereby also improving the environment for women’s popular participation and representation in democratic governance.
Gender inequalities need to be addressed for these benefits to be felt. In Cambodia, while significant advances have been made in reducing poverty (from 53.2% of the population in 2004 to 20.5% in 2011), the nutrition of women and children remains a concern and the percentages of severely stunted and underweight children remain high. Recognizing that gender equality has essentially been achieved in entry to primary education, the continuing gaps in higher education indicate that girls are still leaving earlier than boys, with approximately 13% more boys entering upper secondary and tertiary education. Women’s health in Cambodia has improved significantly. The maternal mortality has decreased over the past decade, with women increasingly accessing health care during pregnancy and delivery and more women using contraception. For younger women, however, fertility has not decreased and poorer, less educated teenage girls are more likely to become pregnant when they are not ready for motherhood. Whilst there has been substantive increase in women’s wage employment in industry (from a 44% share in 2005 to 70.8% in 2011) women are still 9% more likely than men to be in vulnerable employment, will earn on average 27% less than men. In Cambodia’s 2013 national elections the gender equality at the polling stations (at over 50%) was not reflected in the National Assembly (with only 20% of seats being won by women).
Indeed, women benefit less from the fruits of progress and have less access to opportunities to improving their living conditions; at the same time they are more vulnerable or exposed to hardship. A recent UN regional study found that violence against women in all its forms is widespread, including domestic violence and rape. In addition, women who belong to disadvantaged groups, such as women with disabilities or indigenous women, will often face discrimination on multiple levels.
These inequalities must be addressed for the potential of Cambodian girls today to be realized into the lives of Cambodian women tomorrow. Equality for Cambodian girls and women is progress for all Cambodians. In his statement for International Women’s Day UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon emphasises a clear message, “[...]for every girl born today, and to every woman and girl on the planet: realizing human rights and equality is not a dream, it is a duty of governments, the United Nations and every human being. [...]for my fellow men and boys: play your part. All of us benefit when women and girls – your mothers, sisters, friends and colleagues – can reach their full potential”.
While the Millennium Development Goals call for gender equality, they have not explicitly addressed the need for transformation in gender relations. Instead of focusing on the causes of gender inequality, the focus has been on its consequences. Thus, in building good governance and in tackling gender inequality, Cambodia is faced with both the opportunity and the need to address the structural drivers of gender inequality, including the norms, attitudes and beliefs which enable gender discrimination.
The implementation of the upcoming National Strategic Development Plan (2016-2018) will provide an excellent opportunity to take action over the next five years. With a view beyond the MDGs, Cambodia is especially well positioned to meet its commitment to human rights and gender equality by increasing the voice, choice and safety of all Cambodian women and girls. By focusing on, responding to, and preventing violence, by empowering women legally and economically, and by strengthening women’s leadership and participation in public life, Cambodia can undertake a transformative gender-responsive development agenda. In doing so, Cambodia will ensure development means progress for all.
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