On Febuary 15, 2024, an article titled “Why Cambodia needs to incorporate more women into its foreign policy process” was published on the Diplomat and has caught attention from various readers including the Kingdom’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, who is also now requesting clarifications from the author. 

While the article highlighted the significance of having more women in leadership and decision-making positions and some important statistical facts on the disproportionately low number of women in politics and diplomatic field, it failed to acknowledge the efforts and significant progress made by the government over the years to promote and mainstream gender equality in all sectors. 

In Cambodia, commitments to empower and increase women leadership come from the highest level of the government. As often heard, women are considered as the “backbone of the society and economy”. 

Gender equality has been one of the government’s priority agendas, as manifested in various national policies and strategies – the Rectangular Strategy of the previous government – the National Strategic Development Plan (NSDP), the five-year Strategic Neary Rattanak, and National Plan for Sub-National Democratic Development (NP-SNDD), to name but a few.

Each plan of those policies and strategies includes the prerequisite of gender mainstreaming across all levels of government. Thanks to the effective implementation of the national policies and strategies put in place to promote gender equality, Cambodia has reduced the gender inequality gap.

While the article raised that Cambodia was ranked 121st in 2021 with a low number of women in political participation, it did not further reveal the latest update and improvement.

According to the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report 2023, Cambodia’s gender parity was ranked 92nd among 146 countries, down from 112th in 2016 and 98th in 2022. 

Scoring by the four components of gender equality in economic participation, education attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment, in which a score of 1.0 indicates gender equality, Cambodia made significant progress in reducing gender equality gap in educational attainment (0.98) and health survival (0.97), compared to economic participation (0.71) and women’s political involvement (0.11), the sector where women are disproportionately unequal compared to men globally. 

The report also pointed out that Cambodia was among the countries that had seen a considerable increase in the share of women in senior positions and legislators.

As far as gender equality is concerned, Cambodia has a bulk number of government ministries and institutions that are the channel mechanisms working on the promotion of gender equality.

Aside from the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, other institutional mechanisms for gender equality and the empowerment of women like the Cambodian National Council for Women (CNCW) is unique and of significance. 

The CNCW, established in 2001 and led by the Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk, is an inter-ministerial mechanism for coordinating and providing recommendations to the government, aimed at promoting gender equality and empowering women.

Every year, CNCW holds its annual review, chaired by the Prime Minister, to review progress and achievements on gender equality whether it is aligned with the government’s commitments set forth in the national plans and strategies.

The event is significant as the Prime Minister always gives recommendations on measures to further mainstream gender equality as well as address gender issues. It is also where the premier’s recommendations are translated into policies or strategies to be implemented nationwide.

As a case in point, while chairing the CNCW’s annual review in 2009 on the government’s commitment to increase women leadership, then-Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that in all ministries, there must be at least one female secretary of state and at least one female undersecretary of state. And at the sub-national level, in all provincial/district departments and board of governors, there must be at least one woman as a deputy director and a deputy governor respectively.

The policy has led to noticeable surges in women’s leaders holding the posts of Secretary of State and Undersecretary of State – an increase of 10 percentage points in the past 20 years, from 6% in 1998 to 15% in 2022 and from 4% to 16% respectively.

Currently, Cambodia has 28 ministries and two secretariats in the executive branch. In the 7th legislature mandate, females lead three ministries, namely the Ministry of Women’ Affairs, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, and the Ministry of Commerce, accounting for 10% of the ministerial positions. 

It is also worth noting that although there has been a drop of women in the National Assembly, a woman has historically been appointed as its president and as chairwoman of the Cambodian Women Parliament Caucus (CWPC).

In addition, a woman (with an equivalent rank to Minister) has been appointed as the governor of the National Bank of Cambodia while another has been appointed as the General Auditor of the National Audit Authority.

Regarding women on the diplomatic front, as clarified by the foreign ministry on February 16, 2024, there are currently five females representing Cambodia in senior diplomatic role as ambassador out of 27 embassies and four Permanent Missions of Cambodia in other countries.

The figure means that the proportion of Cambodian women participation in diplomatic affairs accounts for 19%, which has already surpassed the 15% of the global average.

Aside from engaging in foreign affairs, the government has also recognised women’s significant role in contributing to building peace and security.

In 2021, when Cambodia was the chair of the 13th Asia-Europe Summit (13th ASEM), it hosted a side event entitled “Asia-Europe Forum on Women, Peace and Security (WPS).” 

In addition, during Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship, in reaffirming strong commitment to promoting gender equality and the critical role of women in leadership, Cambodia organised the second ASEAN Women Leaders’ Summit. It is also worth pointing out that in the same year, Cambodia was the country that pushed forward the adoption of the ASEAN Regional Plan of Action on WPS as well as the launching of the project study on women political participation and leadership in ASEAN. 

When Cambodia was the ASEAN chair, member states witnessed the critical role made by a woman, Eat Sophea, who was then Cambodia’s ASEAN Senior Official.

In 2022 – when it was recognized as one of the most turbulent and challenging year, if not the worst, as there were a series of pressing issues including the Myanmar crisis, the breakout of the Russia-Ukraine war, the visit of former US House of Representative speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, among others – Sophea had taken the lead role representing Cambodia in chairing, coordinating, and accommodating various interests by ASEAN member countries and ASEAN dialogue partners. She was also praised by many for her leadership and achievements as Cambodia’s ASEAN Senior Official.

It is true that despite the efforts and progress made in mainstreaming gender equality and uplifting women’s role in leadership, the number of women remains low. There are still challenges to break through on increasing the number of women in leadership and political representation and more importantly breaking both the glass ceiling and curtain ceiling.

However, Cambodia is striving towards achieving its 2030 and 2050 goals for an inclusive development. As Prime Minister Hun Manet has said, “the government is not perfect, but it is trying its best to improve for the betterment and further development of Cambodia and its people.”

Phon Sokpanya is an independent research consultant.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not purport to reflect the views of any organisations.