Gender inequality is one of the greatest and long overdue challenges that remains unaddressed in our time. With multiple crises and uncertainty facing leaders today, urgent action on gender equality is always deferred to a more convenient time, when in fact, lasting solutions to crises requires addressing gender gaps. Without gender equality today, a sustainable and equal future remains beyond our reach.

Cambodia has made important advances in gender equality over the past 25 years. A recent gender equality report by the UN in Cambodia demonstrates, however, that significant gender inequalities continue, creating barriers to women’s equal participation in the cultural, economic, and political life of the country and hindering inclusive and sustainable development.

What does it take for a gender transformative, inclusive and sustainable recovery?

Five issues are critical to address to advance gender equality and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

First, social norms. In Cambodia, social norms and beliefs that restrict what women can do and be, and give higher value and more power to men, are still pervasive. Social expectations of women and men are evident in day-to-day interactions in workplaces and communities.

During my conversations with young women leaders in Cambodia, I frequently hear this as main barriers to women taking leadership roles but also inspiring stories of change. Darathtey Din, a writer and one of the chapter authors of Cambodia 2040 said, since the day we were born, women were taught that we are weak and should be taken care of by anybody else but ourselves.

While it sounds like an obvious solution to look outward, suggesting that women need to be empowered, it is also crucial for women to look inward, analyse, question, understand, and break free from the social norms instilled in our mindset through our upbringings. I believe changes are sustainable when it comes from both ways, outside and from within.

Second, these restrictive norms are reflected in the vastly unequal distribution of unpaid domestic and care work, with women doing, on average, 90 per cent of that work. This in turn constrains women’s opportunities and resources. Although the burden of unpaid care and domestic work is one of the biggest obstacles to gender equality in Cambodia, it is seldom addressed by public policies or development efforts.

Third, harmful gender norms are also a root cause of gender-based violence which directly affects a significant proportion of Cambodian women and LGBTQI people. More than one in five Cambodian women have experienced physical or sexual violence from a partner. One in three have experienced emotional abuse.

Fourth, the impacts of these core inequalities are negatively impacting women’s labour market engagement as well as the economy. Overviews of the labour market show structural inequalities, with women over-represented in lower paid, less valued positions and under-represented in more senior and higher paying roles.

Women contribute significantly to Cambodia’s economy as owners of 62 per cent of micro- and 26 per cent of small- and medium-enterprises, but they continue to face barriers to financing and registration. Unregistered businesses were unable to access support during the pandemic

Lastly, representation in decision-making. Women continue to be significantly under-represented in management positions across sectors, trade unions, political parties and at all levels of government. Women’s representation at the National Assembly has increased to 21 per cent, while female senators remained stagnant at 16 per cent. Women land activists and human rights defenders face violence and harassment and their leadership in these struggles has seldom translated into better access to decision-making power in the long term.

In a recent conversation with a female environmental activist, I heard that “as a woman in environmental activism, there are challenges which make it harder for us to continue engaging in this field. We must first address and communicate women’s concerns, then from there figure out solutions together. There are people who work hard for women to engage in environmental activism, to ensure diversity and to be a more effective voice.”

What is good for gender equality is good for the economy and society as well. What are the ways forward for the Royal Government of Cambodia together with partners to address gender inequalities and achieve gender-transformative change?

We need comprehensive and sustained strategies to change gender norms, engaging multiple stakeholders at all levels: men, boys, households, communities, schools, institutions, and governments.

We need to recognise and address women’s unpaid care and work and invest in gender-sensitive social protection systems that support informal workers.

We need to strengthen prevention, response, and recovery from sexual and gender-based violence. We need to invest in sexual and reproductive health and rights, by strengthening health systems.

We need economic progress through targeted investments in women and girls’ education, employment, training, and decent work.

We need to boost women’s leadership and participation at all levels, from indigenous woman in communes to women senators and judges. We need to facilitate the work of women human rights and environmental defenders for a sustainable tomorrow.

For a sustainable future, the UN is supporting the government in fulfilling its human rights obligations, including from the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Strengthening the legal framework; supporting health, preventing gender-based violence, and providing social services for continued care during the pandemic; investing in girls’ education and decent employment for youth; and delivering technical assistance on gender-sensitive cash transfer programme as well as assessing how to increase formalisation of informal work.

It takes each one of us to make progress. Together with Cambodian researchers, academics, and activists we will generate knowledge and evidence to advance gender equality. Together with civil society organisations and social movements we will advocate for gender equality and human rights by providing resources, creating space and opportunities.

For International Women’s Day 2022, the UN Secretary General calls for a sustainable feminist recovery. “As we look to the future, a sustainable and equal recovery for all is only possible if it is a feminist recovery – one that puts progress for girls and women at its centre.”

Pauline Tamesis, UN Resident Coordinator, Cambodia

For more information on the transformative actions required, please refer to the UN Gender Equality Deep-Dive for Cambodia.