The Untapped Potential of Cambodian Women: My Conversation with University Students on Gender Equality

September 16, 2019

Chan Dara and Sidh discussing traditional roles of femininity and masculinity in Cambodia. Photo credit: Cassandra Jeffery – UNDP Cambodia

Cambodia has made progress on closing the nation’s gender gap in recent years, but deeply rooted gender inequalities and gender roles remain evident. According to official data in Cambodia, women fall behind their male counterparts with respect to economic empowerment, tertiary education, and representation in government. For example, in 2017 the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports found that 22 percent of master’s degree students and five percent of PhD students were women, while only 10 percent of ministers are female. Intertwined cultural traditions and societal norms contribute to discriminatory behaviours, often underpinning stereotypes and misconceptions regarding the value of women in Cambodian society. Perceptions of women as solely wives and mothers discourages educational and professional development, directly stunting social and economic growth. 

Gender inequality is a global issue, but in the Cambodian context there are some specific barriers to consider. In light of learning about these barriers, I sat down with two university students to discuss women’s rights and gender equality in Cambodia.

Sophany Chan Dara and Moeun Chamrong Ridhisidh both participated in a youth debate facilitated by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA) on the topic of gender equality. Held in February 2019, the debate was broadcasted on TVK (the national TV channel), and covered topics regarding the participation of women in Cambodia’s economic and social sectors, the role of mass media in preventing violence against women, and the importance of gender equality in Cambodian society. 

Women have the potential to help propel Cambodia’s economic and social sectors forward. Photo credit: Kimheang Tuon, UNDP Cambodia.

Nineteen-year-old Sidh is currently studying English at Phnom Penh International University, as well as International Business Management at the University of Cambodia. Chan Dara is 20 years old, and currently studying English at the Institute of Foreign Languages and International Management at the National University of Management.

As seasoned debaters, these two sophomore students are brimming with knowledge about anything and everything. However, it wasn’t until the debate that Chan Dara and Sidh had the chance to reflect more deeply on the Cambodian context regarding gender roles and women’s rights.

“I was able to expose myself to a new subject and gain more knowledge, said Chan Dara. “It’s important to understand what’s happening in society, and not just learn from textbooks.” 

Sophany Chan Dara, 20-year-old university student, Phnom Penh. Photo credit: Cassandra Jeffery—UNDP Cambodia.

Exposure to the subject has encouraged Chan Dara and Sidh to reshape their view on gender equality and to question and redefine societal norms that dictate the roles of women and men in Cambodia.

“Men in our society believe that women are less important than men,” reflected Sidh. “As men, we should understand that we are equal and that we need to uplift women. It’s important to promote equality because it’s important to give women the same opportunities as men.”

As part of the debate, Chan Dara and Sidh analysed the social and economic benefits of a more gender-balanced society. Women comprise just over half (51 percent) of the Cambodian population, and yet women earn on average 30 percent less than their male counterparts. Meanwhile, only 12 percent of women have reached higher levels of education, compared to 21 percent of men. Learning about the striking disparity between men and women was eye-opening for the young students because, as they see it, a more equal society will promote economic and social prosperity.

“It would definitely benefit our industrial sector because the majority of people working in factories are women, so equal pay would not only improve their livelihoods, but also their family’s livelihoods. Cambodia also heavily relies on the manufacturing sector, so improvements in this small way impact our society socially and economically,” explained Chan Dara.

Sidh also highlighted the untapped potential of women in emerging sectors. Essentially, new educational opportunities for women outside the traditional scope—such as science and technology—will lead to a more innovative and prosperous Cambodia.

“We’re living in a technological world that women can contribute to,” said Sidh. “Our labour market would significantly benefit, not only from diversification, but from including women as well.” 

Moeun Chamrong Ridbisidh, 19-year-old university student, Phnom Penh. Photo Credit: Cassandra Jeffery -UNDP Cambodia.

Providing equal opportunity for both men and women has proven social and economic benefits. However, like in many countries around the world, challenges exist that deter the integration of gender-balanced polices and societal norms. Economic opportunity, cultural traditions, and equal representation in, and access to, governance were all barriers that Chan Dara and Sidh cited; however, the biggest road-block we discussed was education.

Women are more likely than men to invest earnings and time into their families and communities. Therefore, the continued education of women is a huge asset because of the knowledge and skill set women can share while participating in social and domestic engagements.

“Educating women will have cascading effects on the entire family,” added Chan Dara.

However, lack of awareness and quality education are the primary hurdles impeding progress in this area. Through sound education, Cambodians will have the skill set required to challenge societal constructs, question gender norms, contribute to economic development, and promote a more gender-balanced political sphere.

“We need to understand our collective roles and responsibilities in helping society, regardless of gender,” said Chan Dara. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman, it’s about being a human being. We have to respect each other.”

Optimistic and proud Cambodians, Chan Dara and Sidh strive to cultivate a future that incorporates the nation’s rich and vibrant cultural traditions, alongside unconventional perspectives on the roles women and men can play in society. Specifically, they reiterated the importance of youth engagement on topics such as gender equality, social and economic development, and education. 

High school Students in Angkor Chhey High School District. Photo credit: Manuth Buth, UNDP Cambodia.

Young, but incredibly compassionate and talented, Chan Dara and Sidh understand their responsibility to help lay the foundation for a more inclusive Cambodian society. They are grateful for having the opportunity to participate in the gender debate because, as they mentioned, most Cambodians do not have access to information or education on the importance of a more gender-balanced society.

“It’s important for youth to understand gender equality because they are a part of the solution, but not knowing the problem makes it hard to find a solution,” concluded Chan Dara.

The Youth Debate facilitated by WoMA is one component of a larger project, Leading the Way to Gender Equality, supported by Sweden and UNDP.

Author: Cassandra Jeffery

For more information on that project click here.

To read the initial article written on LWGE, click here.

For more information on the projects currently under the UNDP Cambodia roster, click here.