In Cambodia, women and children hit hardest by Economic Crisis

Apr 8, 2009

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Coming on the heels of a devastating food and oil crisis, which saw 50 percent of households cut back on food, the UN fears the recession in Cambodia’s major export markets will have severe and wide-ranging implications for the country’s women and children.

“Women will be disproportionally affected by this crisis. They make up the bulk of the labour force, and they are the backbone of this economy. We know that when women’s incomes are lost, the whole family suffers, especially the children,” cautions UN Resident Coordinator, Douglas Broderick.

After a decade of double-digit growth, driven by the manufacturing, construction, and tourism sectors, the Cambodian economy is predicted to contract significantly in 2009. Shrinking demand from US and EU markets has already forced 60,000 job losses in the garment sector. Reduced foreign direct investment has seen a further 25,000 jobs lost in construction.  Hotel occupancies well below last year have prompted authorities to halve the admission fee to Angkor Wat. Whilst economic migrants in neighboring Thailand, Korea, and Malaysia face increasing pressure to return home.

“The global economic crisis has a human face. In Cambodia it’s not just people’s livelihoods at risk-it’s people’s lives” Mr Broderick adds.

Around a third of Cambodia’s 13.4 million people currently live below the national poverty line. Without a formal social welfare system, there are concerns that the global economic crisis will reverse positive trends and push greater numbers of Cambodian women and children into poverty and hunger.

Fewer urban jobs equates to fewer remittances sent home to rural areas, where 80% of Cambodians live. 1. 5 million rural people depend upon migrant remittances (mostly from women) as their major source of income. Early indications show that many unemployed workers are returning to their villages, where livelihood opportunities outside subsistence agriculture are severely limited. To survive, more and more Cambodian women and children may find themselves in the informal economy for lower wages, poorer conditions, and greater risk of sexual exploitation and trafficking.

The UN fears many poor families will adopt “unhealthy” coping measures such as reducing their number of meals per day or eating less nutritious foods; cutting back on health services, removing children from school to work, and selling household assets or land. This concern is supported by the 2008 National Anthropometric Nutrition Survey, which showed an increase in acute malnutrition in poor urban children aged under five years -linked to higher food prices and reduced earnings among the urban poor.

“Informal coping measures all have implications for long-term human development- stalling health, nutrition, and literacy. Deterioration in these areas not only sets back the country today, but also long into the future, long after Wall Street has recovered. There is a human imperative to help Cambodia maintain growth and provide social welfare for all its people.” Mr Broderick warns.

Maternal mortality in Cambodia is already unacceptably high, with five Cambodian women dying in labour every day. With even less income to pay for food and health services, the UN fears more women will forgo good nutrition and health care during pregnancy, exacerbating maternal and neo-natal mortality rates.

As part of the response, the United Nations System in Cambodia is working closely with the government to design an effective social protection system aimed at safeguarding Cambodia’s most vulnerable from economic and other shocks.

“Investing in women and children is the best way to ensure long-term prosperity. There is real opportunity in this crisis to transform ongoing vulnerability into sustainable futures for all Cambodians. Social safety nets in health, education, food, and work can help break the poverty cycle and we must not lose sight of this focus,” says Douglas Broderick on behalf of the United Nations County Team.

Contact Information Beth Neate , UN Communications Officer, Office of the United Nations Resident Coordinator, Cambodia
+855 23 216 167 (ext 124)

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