In the past decade, Cambodia has made progress in reducing the inequality gap between men and women. In partnership with the UN and USAID, gender barriers and negative social norms surrounding women’s place in society are being broken.

Women have taken the lead in various areas of poverty reduction, such as participating in the democratic process and spearheading efforts against water insecurity and climate disaster.

Here are some ways in which gender equality in Cambodia is improving.

Changing Societal Norms

During the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, violence against women escalated, including rape. The UN has worked to support victims and correct assumptions and inattention surrounding violence against women in Cambodia. Through the UN Joint Global Programme on Essential Services for Women and Girls Subject to Violence that began in 2017, survivors of rape and violence are receiving help and support. They focus on various needs of victims.

Through such programs, the UN has made efforts toward openly discussing and reducing violence against women, promoting gender equality in Cambodia.

A UN survey found that 82% of men and 92% of women accept that a woman’s main role lies only in overseeing the home. By using media, the UN is educating the public about negative social norms surrounding the role of women. For example, UNDP Cambodia and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs of Cambodia (MoWA) developed an initiative that focuses on improving gender equality in Cambodia. Between 2017 and 2020, this initiative focused on three areas:

  • Refining various institutions in the health, legal, and economic sectors to implement policies that empower women.
  • Using media to educate and engage the public to break societal norms and gender barriers.
  • Advance efforts to place women in positions of leadership and decision-making.

Women Lead Efforts Toward Water Security

Not only is the conversation surrounding gender equality in Cambodia changing, but women have stepped into positions of leadership in poverty reduction. For example, women are instrumental in efforts to achieve water security. In Cambodia, women are the main members of the household to fetch and handle water.

In addition to daily water needs, women also depend on water for its use in farming. Almost two-thirds of Cambodians are farmers, many of whom are women. The USAID Sustainable Water Partnership (SWP) recognizes the leadership skills of women and trains them to aid efforts toward water security. For example, in 2018, this program trained 17 women in the Stung Chinit Watershed and placed them in positions of leadership. These women gained knowledge in various areas, including conflict resolutionteamwork, communication and overseeing finances. In future years, the SWP plans to continue to include women in the fight for water security.

Women in the Democratic Process

The USAID has also worked toward including women in the democratic process. Through grassroots organizations, women are now becoming part of various civil rights causes. The USAID has promoted the participation of women in lobbying for workers’ rights and human rights.

Cambodia’s National Assembly is still composed of 80% men, but efforts to place women in political leadership positions are being undertaken. For example, a Cambodian NGO SILAKA is focused on partnering with political parties to engage women in politics. In 2017, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) focused on including qualified women candidates on candidate lists during council elections.

Women and Climate Disaster

In 2019, UNDP Cambodia increased efforts to prevent climate disasters and protect communities from these disasters. The UNDP has emphasized the role of women in disaster management. They are equipping local women with leadership and decision-making skills as a part of the Charter of Demands for Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation.

Looking Forward

With the aid of the UN and USAID, Cambodia has made crucial efforts toward reforming negative societal norms. This has come through media campaigns and through involving women in poverty reduction efforts. To achieve greater gender equality in Cambodia, further efforts are needed to empower women politically, economically and socially.

– Anita Durairaj
Photo: Needpix

Marginalized Women in CambodiaThe opportunities for marginalized women in Cambodia, specifically in the workforce, are limited due to discrimination and traditional patriarchal attitudes that persist in the country. Women are less likely to receive an education than their male counterparts, putting them at an even greater disadvantage in the job market.

Problems Faced by Marginalized Women in Cambodia

So for girls leaving rural villages to try to earn money for themselves and their families, garment work and sex work are the only major employment possibilities. The two trades are often linked. For example, if a girl from the countryside migrates to the city to work in a garment factory, then loses her job because the manufacturer closes up and “runs away” to another location, she may be forced to work as a prostitute in order to survive. Meanwhile, prostitutes who are arrested are often re-trained to work in the garment industry, where they face similar abuses as they did as sex workers, including sexual, physical and verbal abuse.

It is difficult to change the status quo in a country where protest is basically illegal and very dangerous. Dissenters face arrest, torture and murder. Cambodia has been ruled by Prime Minister Hun Sen of the Cambodian People’s Party since 1985. He and the party have been criticized for an increasingly authoritarian rule and silencing any dissenters. Sen just won re-election on July 29 (after banning the opposition party) and will be in power for at least another five years.

United Sisterhood Alliance (Us)

However, this repression has not been totally successful in silencing activists. The United Sisterhood Alliance (Us) is an organization that has been helping marginalized women in Cambodia recognize their rights and makes their voices heard.

Us receives funding from organizations such as Oxfam, American Jewish World Service, and the Global Fund for Women. It consists of an alliance of four linked organizations:

  1. Social Action for Community and Development (SACD) which helps strengthen grassroots and women’s movements.
  2. The Messenger Band (MB) which is an all-girl band consisting of former garment workers who use music to bring awareness to the public.
  3. Women’s Network for Unity (WNU) enables sex workers to have greater agency in their lives.
  4. Worker Information Centers (WIC) are a series of drop-in centers across Phnom Pen that work to empower female garment workers through education, discussion groups and advocacy.

These are explained in more detail below.

Social Action for Community and Development

The SACD  is a resource organization whose end goal is a “critical people’s movement for social and economic justice, to call for an end of all forms of discrimination and to have equal access to fundamental human rights.” They work mostly with women in the sex and garment industries, but also with farmers and people of low-economic status, with a particular focus on improving the health care system for the most impoverished members of society. They host community forums and essay competitions to encourage public participation.

The Messenger Band

The Messenger Band is one of the Us’s most creative projects. The musical group was started by Vun Em, who moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, as a teenager to work in the garment industry. Like other women in that trade, she faced sexual harassment, low wages and long hours. These topics come up in the Messenger Band’s music. Among her well-known songs are The Tears of a Garment Worker and Suffer from Privatization. Em also records female garment workers telling their stories. These stories are then turned into songs, music videos and plays that help to educate the public about what marginalized women in Cambodia are facing.

Performing issue-based songs and plays is dangerous in Hun Sen’s Cambodia, but when confronted about her activism, “I tell police and soldiers I am just a musician,” Vun said. The group has, therefore, managed to avoid persecution.

Women’s Network for Unity

Women’s Network for Unity started in 2002 and consists of a network of 6,400 sex workers of various sexual and gender orientations. WNU fights for access to social services, liberation from discrimination and violence, and the empowerment of sex workers to make their voices heard and advocate for their rights.

In 2008, due to outside foreign pressure, the Cambodian government launched an anti-trafficking campaign with the supposed intention of saving victims of sex trafficking. However, members of the WNU say that the campaign has actually hurt the cause more than helping it.

Police go on raids where they arrest prostitutes and often berate them physically and verbally. They are then “encouraged” (with the only alternative being to sit in jail)  to be re-trained to work in the garment factories. But sex workers who go through the training say they received minimal instruction, had their pay docked during training and have also endured physical and sexual abuse at the factories. Many former sex-workers-turned-seamstresses have told interviewers that they actually preferred life on the streets to the terrible conditions and low pay in garment factories.

Worker Information Centers

WIC works primarily with young women in the Cambodian garment industry. While women working in the garment industry contribute substantially to the Cambodian economy, they have little voice or self-representation.  WIC wants to educate these young women about their rights and opportunities.

One of WIC’s most effective strategies are the drop-in centers operating in worker neighborhoods on the outskirts of Phnom Penh near garment factories. These drop-in centers provide legal assistance and train women to understand their legal rights both under Cambodian law and the regulations of the International Labor Organization.

Women are counseled in cases of domestic violence and offered access to peer networks. They join regular discussion groups, cooking classes and workshops to learn how to prevent conceiving children and seek help in cases of domestic violence and what kinds of herbs to use to treat illnesses that garment workers are prone to such as urinary tract infections, yeast infections and repetitive stress injuries.

WIC also promotes women’s leadership in garment unions. Their overall goal is to create an environment of greater gender equality in the labor movement and the Cambodian government.


These four social groups that make up the United Sisterhood Alliance are changing lives and creating community among the marginalized women in Cambodia. 

– Evann Orleck-Jetter
Photo: Flickr

Girls' Education in Cambodia
The Cambodian government sees education as a key to achieving its long-term vision for the country. It is focused on political stability, long-term economic growth, sustainable development, improved living standards and reduced poverty. It has identified girls’ education in Cambodia in particular as an important step in reaching these goals.

Gender Disparities Still an Obstacle in Cambodia

Although Cambodia has made strides in offering equal access to education for boys and girls, the country still suffers from a substantial gender disparity. Because of this, girls’ education in Cambodia is both lacking and unjust. If a Cambodian girl has aspirations of getting an advanced education or entering the workforce, her dream will more than likely be crushed due to the poverty, corruption, cultural norms and lack of schools in rural areas in Cambodia.

Data collected by various international organizations and the Cambodian Ministry of Education shows that boys and girls in Cambodia start primary education at equal rates. However, reports show that the dropout rate for female students increases with each grade. Although the gender gap is continuing to narrow, the gross enrollment rate decreases for female students in both the lower and upper secondary levels.

What Prevents Cambodian Girls from Attending School?

Girls’ education in Cambodia is compromised because of widespread poverty; Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. According to the Asian Development Bank, 72 percent of the population lives on less than $3 per day. Children living in rural areas are more than likely from poor families; therefore, they will struggle to obtain an education. Poverty is interlinked with the issue of girls’ education in Cambodia, as many poor parents will prioritize their son’s education over their daughter’s.

Cultural norms in Cambodia confine many of these girls to a life full of domestic duties, such as housework, cooking and caring for children. With the corruption and poverty that Cambodia faces today, as well as the gender disparities and lack of schools in rural areas, Cambodian girls still do not have the same opportunities as Cambodian boys.

The Good News Regarding Girls’ Education in Cambodia

Fortunately, there are many organizations who have taken notice of the inequalities in girls’ education in Cambodia and are creating opportunities for these girls. A program called OPTIONS, run by World Education with financial support from UNICEF and the U.S. Department of Labor, provides scholarships that enable girls who are at risk of dropping out to remain in school. In poor areas of Cambodia such as Prey Veng, where many families are forced to migrate due to persistent floods and droughts, the scholarships also help prevent girls from being trafficked or sexually exploited.

To address the needs of undereducated girls, the program offers girls in grades five and six weekly skills classes on a wide range of topics, such as trafficking, reproductive health, sexual abuse and vocational awareness. Girls between the ages of eight and 12 who are out of school can attend courses that aid them in reintegrating in the formal system after one year. For girls over the age of 12, the offerings include basic and functional literacy courses and apprenticeships with local employers.

World Bank Project Ensures Rural Girls Can Access Schools

The World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors approved $100 million in financing for two Cambodian projects in April 2017. Both projects will contribute to improving the quality of secondary schools and making rural roads better connected and resistant to severe weather impacts.

The first project, the Secondary Education Improvement Project, is a five-year project for lower secondary schools. The project has many different goals, including strengthening school management, improving the qualifications of teachers and school directors, and providing better school facilities by renovating 100 schools and building 30 new ones. This alone is expected to impact more than 16,000 students, 2,200 teachers, 310 school directors and deputy directors and 1,500 school staff members.

The second project, the Southeast Asia Disaster Risk Management Project, will refine and improve the connectivity of rural communities, which are isolated from mainstream development due to poor road conditions. This project will rehabilitate about 150 miles of rural roads in six provinces and will benefit about 3.5 million residents.

“Improving rural roads is central to poverty reduction in Cambodia, since 79 percent of the population and 91 percent of the poor live in rural areas,” said Inguna Dobraja, the World Bank’s Country Manager for Cambodia. “Better and weather resilient roads will help students go to school, families visit health centers and farmers from across Cambodia bring their products to markets.”

Although it is an unfortunate reality that many hopes for girls’ education in Cambodia are destroyed and unfulfilled due to cultural norms, poverty and gender disparities, the gap between boys and girls in education is continuing to narrow, and organizations such as UNICEF and the World Bank are working to bring about a future where more Cambodian girls will receive a quality education.

– Angelina Gillispie
Photo: Flickr