French poet and writer Louis Aragon once said, "Woman is the future of man", expressing his vision of a society that allows women to be more in charge of its destiny. It sounds so inspirational, but can it be realized?
Is gender equality achievable in the economic domain?
Despite gender equality being recognized as a legitimate goal for humanity and stipulated in the Millennium Development Goals, progress is still slow, with gender norms and perceptions proving a challenge in many countries, including Cambodia.
With extensive duties as family and community caretakers, women have limited opportunities to fully involve themselves in the economic and political arenas. Their activity in the economic sphere is usually confined to micro-businesses, an informal sector where policies and regulations fail to protect the interest of the economic actors. Moreover, globalization is placing increasing pressure on the development process worldwide. This creates additional challenges for women in staying ahead of change and in ensuring their inclusion in the development process which would lead to their equal rights to earn a decent living.
Trade, undoubtedly an important aspect of globalization, has notable impact on growth, employment and business opportunities, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). It influences income distribution between men and women, and can have significant consequences for social and gender equality. However, in 2004 the International Labour Organization and UNCTAD indicated that women are still confined in their role and position in the economy. Women are offered fewer opportunities than their male counterparts, with outcomes such as insufficient participation in the formal labour market, poor conditions of work and quality of employment, labour division with job stereotypes, lack of empowerment, inequality of wages for the same job and difficulty in accessing basic services and resources such as land and credit.
There are tremendous challenges for increasing women's economic opportunities, particularly within the context of overall poverty reduction and development challenges facing Cambodia. But there are also clear opportunities to respond to these challenges.
A Cambodian proverb states that "Helping women is helping yourself". Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen incorporated this message, which highlights the role of women as the backbone of the national economy and society, in the Government's Rectangular Strategy 2004-2008. The national policy framework, the gender policies of donors and the Ministry of Women's Affairs' mandate to promote the role and status of women in Cambodia all provide potential entry points for advocacy and action.
From commitments to actions
I don't believe that continuing to implement small economic projects is the key to success. Isolating women from the macro-level decision-making process is not an approach holistic enough to compensate for the scale of challenges in the global trade arena. New ways of thinking are needed to tackle the issue of gender equality, particularly in the economic sphere.
We need to update knowledge and communication, set up reliable data with good analysis, advocate professionally and strongly with skills, obtain adequate financial support, upgrade the capacity of women and, most of all, strengthen the structural support to systematically mainstream women's issues in sectoral domains.
According to my experience, the economic liberation of women, notably through equal education opportunities, is crucial to providing equal economic footing since it alleviates so many of the problems women face. Poverty tends to influence women's condition more directly.
The development context of Cambodia
Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in East Asia with 34% of households living below the national poverty line. …