Named after the late King Father, Sihanouk province is one of Cambodia’s top tourist destinations, thanks to its beautiful beaches and tropical islands. It is also the Kingdom’s only deep seaport and logistic hub hosting multi-million dollars transport and logistics facilities, including textiles and garment factories, which creates a lot of job opportunities for the people.

And just 20km away from the city centre, there are special economic zones which host many textiles and garment factories. The vast majority of garment factory employees here are women who migrated from nearby provinces like Takeo, Kampot, Prey Veng, and other rural areas.

Kourn Nath, a mother of four, works in one of those factories for more than five years. Just like her fellow colleagues, she dropped out in third grade. It takes her two hours every day commuting to and back from work which costs her $20 dollars per month using bus service.

When asked how she is coping with the Covid-19 pandemic, she pauses for seconds before responding. Nath said her life hit the rock bottom. She made no income other than just her minimum wage.

Nath is a courageous mother who raises four kids alone. She has a big dream, a dream of sending her kids to college for an education and job opportunity. But that dream is too fragile. Her eldest son just dropped out in eighth grade three months ago, so he can look after his younger brothers and support the household works. The youngest son walks about 10km to school every day because he could not afford a bike.

With only access to a National Social Security Fund (NSSF) card which she used once when she gave birth to her fourth son, her family is vulnerable to extreme poverty should she no longer make any income or be unemployed.

I understood her challenges and hardship of being a working mom, the responsibilities and the loads, especially with the least support Nath could have. I myself am a full-time working mom of three children, and I can tell that raising kids is socially and financially challenging.

Imagine you were Nath or imagine a society where mothers need to get back to work after a few days of delivering their newborns; children have to drop out of school and work to support their parents; persons with disabilities beg on the streets because there are no job opportunities for them; and older persons need to work to their very last breath.

Well, it was exactly Cambodia not long ago. And many in need, just like Nath and her children, are still struggling with these hardships every day. It is why a system of support, inclusive social protections in particular, is vital to achieving gender equity and poverty reduction efforts in Cambodia.

Social protection is not a new concept. It has long been mainstreaming into policy settings in many countries to protect people from unforeseen life contingencies. It is set out, in Article 22, as a human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Social protection is also a key target of the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2023. And Article 36 and 75 of Cambodia’s Constitution also entitles every Khmer citizen to social security.

The World Social Protection Report 2017-2019 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) notes that four billion people worldwide are left without social protection. And only 29 per cent of the global population enjoys access to comprehensive social security. The report indicates that 7 in 10 unemployed workers receive no unemployment benefits; 4 in 10 people lack access to essential healthcare; 6 in 10 families have no access to child support; and 3 in 10 elderly persons have no access to pensions. And only 41.1 per cent of mothers with newborns receive a maternity benefit while 83 million new mothers remain uncovered. The report recommended that, in countries in Africa, Arab States, and Asia in particular, social protection coverages be extended to ensure at least a basic social protection floor for all.

Here in Cambodia, social protection has also taken policy momentum. The government has launched several social protection schemes. Among those social protection schemes is the NSSF which has greatly benefited employees in the formal sector, particularly those in the apparel industry. Through this scheme, NSSF reported that in 2020 alone a total of 80,000 female garment workers received maternity allowances from the government which accounted for $7.9 million.

The National Social Protection Council also reported that approximately 300,000 female workers both in formal and informal sectors, who have given birth between January 2018 to March 2022, benefited from cash support which accounts for $30.1 million. It also reported that at least 560,000 households with an IDPoor card benefited from this scheme in 2020 alone. And at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Cambodia, garment factory workers, not all, who were temporarily laid off also received support in the forms of cash-based transfer programmes. And of course school feeding and scholarship programmes for vulnerable students in primary and secondary education.

Adopted from ESCAP (2020) The Protection We Want: Social Outlook for Asia and the Pacific.

These are positive policy interventions and we shall applause the government for this effort. But there is also a need for recognition of policy loopholes in the social protection system. It is evident that Cambodia has yet guaranteed at least a basic level of social protection floor for all. And it is true that social protection in Cambodia is underinvestment.

A social protection floor here is defined by the ILO as “a nationally-defined set of basic social security guarantees which should ensure at a minimum that all in need, throughout their lifecycle, have access to essential healthcare and basic income security”. A social protection floor is built on four social security guarantees. Firstly, the access to essential healthcare and maternity care. Secondly, basic income security for children so that they can have access to nutrition, care, and education that are critical to their cognitive development. Thirdly, basic income security for persons in active age, but unable to earn sufficient income resulting from maternity, health condition, disability, and unemployment. And fourthly, basic income security for older persons in the form of pension funds.

In the case of Nath and her children, despite their hardship and poverty, she is only able to access essential healthcare and maternity care via the contributory scheme like National Social Security Fund.

Cambodia has yet substantially invested in social protection. In 2015, the World Bank indicated that countries globally spent 1.5 per cent on average of their GDP on social protection programmes. A research study in 2020 commissioned by UNDP found that Cambodia’s shared of budget allocated to social protection is estimated at only 0.9 per cent of GDP which was significantly below the global average. The finding asserts that Cambodia is capable and has sufficient fiscal space to create an inclusive social protection system.

A stronger investment in social protection will strengthen the resilience and wellbeing of Cambodian people throughout their lifecycle. This investment will bring people like Nath and her family out of poverty and reduce income and gender inequalities. And it will benefit Cambodia for generations because of a better protected and educated population.

Inclusive social protection can play a more far-reaching goal in building a society where mothers don’t need to rush back to work after a few days of delivering their newborns; children don’t have to drop out of school or work to support their parents; persons with disabilities don’t need to beg for living because there are income security for them; and senior citizens don’t need to work until they die because there is pension fund available. It is a beautiful society we all want, isn’t it?

While Cambodia is now ASEAN chair under the tagline “ASEAN ACT – Addressing Challenges Together”, it is politically and economically beneficial that Cambodia pushes forward an inclusive social protection agenda in the ASEAN Summit 2022. It will create a stronger alliance of multilateral cooperation and support on top of domestic financing.

Oxfam and partners are ready and committed to support the government to advance this agenda. This commitment is well reflected in our work. We have built partnerships and implemented several initiatives that support the National Social Protection Council, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, NGOs and trade unions, to build robust social protection systems and to promote public awareness among apparel industry employees, street vendors and workers in informal sector, persons with disability, and far-reaching vulnerable and Indigenous communities across the Kingdom.

Together we can challenge the conventional assertion that universal social protection systems are not affordable.

The only question is that – does Cambodia have the courage to fight this winning war?

Sophoan Phean is the National Director of Oxfam in Cambodia, a gender justice lead, and a full-time working mom. Like many women of her generation, she was born and raised during wartime, extreme poverty, and in a patriarchal society, experiences that have strengthened her commitment to gender and social justice.