I was born in Japan and during the time of Beijing I was still finishing up my degree. In 1997, I migrated to Cambodia, and have lived here as a female activist for the last years teaching gender studies at Pannasastra University. For the last 15 years I have observed the huge development and empowerment of women by working with my students.
Today, I am here to share with you some of the findings on the implementation of the Beijing Platform in the last 20 years. Last year, I worked with the government to draft a report on the 20 years of implementation of the Beijing Platform. This will be submitted to the Commission on the Status of Women in March. We identified seven big achievements since the Beijing Platform that I will recount to you below.
Cambodia endorsed the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) at the Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) in 1995. The period following the FWCW has been an eventful one, with many actions and measures being initiated and achievements attained. The Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) has put gender equality as a top priority on the government‘s development agenda, with significant political commitment, and has taken concrete measures in order to achieve the goals set out in the BPFA. Cambodia has periodically reviewed the progress of the implementation of the BPFA by submitting reports in 2000 and 2004, and participated in the regional and global review process.
Firstly, female poverty reduction was identified as a primary concern in Cambodia after the Beijing Declaration. Following the historic UN Millennium Summit in 2000, which set broad Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to be achieved by the year 2015, Cambodia developed its own set of MDGS, the Cambodian Millennium Development Goals (CMDGs), focusing on poverty alleviation and human development. Cambodia has been making progress in women’s economic empowerment to achieve these poverty alleviation goals. 20 years ago in Phnom Penh there were no high rise buildings and few paved roads. In terms of infrastructure, a lot has been improved, and infrastructure is very important as it improves the access of women and girls to education and health facilities.
The poverty reduction also links with women entering the labor force, and in terms of this Cambodia has been doing a great job. Women’s opportunities to get employed have expanded, and more women are in paid employment. The labor force participation rate for women in Cambodia is the highest in the region, with increases in women’s labor force participation rates rising from 75.6 to 79.7 per cent between 2008 and 2012 for the age group 15-64 years.
Secondly, there has also been substantial improvement since 2004 in narrowing the gender gap in the literacy rate among the 15 -24 age group, and the proportion of female to male literacy was more than 99 per cent in 2011 compared to 91. 3 percent in 2004. This progress means the government is on track to achieve its CMDG target. Gender parity has been achieved in primary school level net enrollment. The 2013/2014 Gender Parity Index improved to 0.97 in primary net enrollment, and from 1.05 for secondary enrollment. However, I also see a gap in very remote areas, for example in Ratanakiri. In many ethnic minority groups the parents still don‘t understand the importance of education, so in these communities young girls are only going to school for one or two years. It is still a big issue that some parents are not aware of the importance of education, and children are not aware of their rights. When I started teaching in 2002, the vast majority of my students were boys. Today, about 40% of the students in my class are female.
Thirdly, Cambodia is one of 10 countries that were on track in 2013 to achieve MDG 4 and MDG 5 to reduce child mortality and maternal mortality. The Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) has more than halved to 206/100,000 in 2010 from 472/100,000 in 2005, a remarkable reduction in a short time period. This success is owed greatly to the RGC’s efforts to improve the delivery of key reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health interventions for women and children. This is due to increased government spending on health facilities. When I visited health centers in rural Cambodia, I saw that all health facilities had at least the very basic equipment for mothers to give birth to children, and the midwives I interviewed were very aware of women‘s rights, and the importance of medical check-ups and vaccinations.
The fifth point of the Declaration is increased female participation in decision-making. After national reconciliation in 1991, and the first democratic election in 1993, the participation of women in decision-making positions has steadily increased in many fields. The number of women in the National Assembly has continuously increased over the past four legislatures, from 5 per cent in 1993 to 20.3 percent in 2013. I would like to talk to you about one lady that I met in Ratanakiri. She is 43 years old, and the chairperson of the Women and Children Consultative Committee at the district level in Ratanakiri. She told me that in 1980 she was elected as Commune Chief and was very excited about her election, but not very confident. So she asked the second person in the row, a man, to be Council Commune Chief and she supported him behind the scenes. I asked her what she tells female leaders nowadays on how to act, and she said: „For the young women I would definitely say try! You may fail, but try. I didn‘t try at that time.“ I think a lot of mindset has been changed, and if elderly people start telling young people to try, you may fail but try, there will be more positive development in female participation in politics.
Sixthly, Cambodia has made significant progress in formulating policies for gender equality, and the empowerment of women since the Beijing Platform For Action. Mainstreaming gender equality at all levels was a high priority of the Royal Government of Cambodia after the Beijing conference. The Ministry of Women‘s Affairs created many laws and mechanisms, but the resources are still lacking and more advocacy is needed for these policies to be fully implemented.
The RGC has committed itself to the prevention of violence against women through its endorsement of international declarations and conventions, and a number of laws and policies have been adapted to date, including a Labor Law in 1997 and a Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence and the Protection of Victims in 2005. MoWA initiated a baseline survey in 2005 and a follow-up survey in 2009, which showed that both men and women were generally expressing a much lower tolerance for violence in 2009 than in 2005. In 2009, victims were also reporting decreased levels of domestic violence. The percentage of Cambodians who understand that violence against women is a wrongful behavior and a crime increased from 30 percent in 2008 to 80 percent in 2009, thus exceeding the 2015 CMDG target of 70 per cent (CMDG 2011). Ten years ago I was doing a session on domestic violence in the provinces, and when I was saying „husbands don‘t have the right to hit the wife“ everyone laughed at me. Thanks to media campaigns and awareness rising by NGOs and the government today, even at the grassroots level, we can hear men saying „you should not beat the wife“.
After listing the seven achievements to date, I will now recount the two challenges identified by the government in their report. Firstly, while gender parity has been achieved in primary education enrolment, beyond lower secondary, access to education for girls is limited and completion rates remain low. Girls‘ completion rate of lower secondary school remains at 40 per cent and upper secondary at only 22.1 per cent. Social norms that prioritize boys‘ over girls‘ education are just one of the barriers to education for girls. The perception of parents towards their daughters is generally that they should help with household chores, and take care of younger siblings, undermining the importance of higher education. I also interviewed a lot of young women working in the garment factories who are 15 or 16. They are currently establishing 6 new factories which will provide employment to 10,000 young women and there is a huge population dynamic as many young girls stop going to school and instead go work in the garment factories.
The second issue is limited opportunities for women‘s access to better paid employment. With the implementation of gender-responsive labor policies and promoting gender equality in the labor market, some gender gaps in the labor market have been reduced. However, women still suffer from persistent gender inequality in employment. About 70 per cent of employed women, compared to 59 per cent of men, remain in vulnerable employment, defined as unpaid work contributing to the family and own account workers. Low levels of education and literacy constitute one of the main barriers to women’s participation in better paid work.
This article first appeared in "We have come a long way...but there is still a long road ahead". Voices from Cambodia 20 years after the Beijing Conference (1995), published by Heinrich Böll Stiftung Cambodia.