Promoting Economic Empowerment for Women in Marginalized Conditions

Paper publication date: 
Tuesday, February 25, 2020


Cambodia has enjoyed enormous economic growth in the past decades which yielded the impacts on women’s livelihood. Between 2000 and 2018, female labors make up about 48% of total labor forces and about 80% of total female population in Cambodia. 30% of female labor force are employed in the agricultural sector, 45% in service and 25% in the industry sectors.

Along with their active roles in participating in labor forces, Cambodian women are facing immense challenges in advancing their economic opportunities. As of 2018, only about 15% of adult women completed secondary education. Number of women in information communication technology (ICT) related field has been increasing in the last decade. A study commissioned by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) reports that 8.5% of total students study ICT related subjects of the post-secondary programs were women. The World Bank’s data shows that around 167 women died from pregnancy related causes per 100,000 live births in 2017. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), rural poor women are at risk in getting health services. The data showed that only 13% of births in rural areas were attended by a doctor as of 2012.

Women are represented in the informal sector with high level of vulnerability. They are found in the vulnerable forms of informal works being employed in the low and unstable wage employment, causal work and risky work environments. Poor and rural women tend to be overrepresented in domestic work, home-based work, street vendor, and smallholder farmers. According to the World Bank’s data, 57% of total female employment were in the vulnerable employment with a high proportion as own account workers contributing domestic care and family work. Even though women owned 65% of all businesses in Cambodia, those businesses are on average smaller and less profitable than businesses run by men with only 1.7% registered compared with 6.6% for male-run businesses. Women owned businesses are primarily concentrated at the micro level in the wholesale and retail trade and services sector.

Low economic opportunities yield negative impacts on the Cambodia’s development goals. Cambodia makes slow progress in all global development indicators. 2017 Cambodia’s Human Development Index (HDI) value was 0.582, falling to 0.469 after the inequality adjustment which was below the average values of East Asia and the Pacific (0.619) and Medium HDI (0.483). Cambodia’s 2017 Gender Inequality Index (GII) value was 0.473, placing Cambodia at 116th out of 160 countries which was behind other ASEAN countries. The World Bank ranks Cambodia at 138th out of 190 countries on the East of Doing Business 2019 with the average score of 54.80 (almost 10 points below the regional average). Cambodia ranks 185th out of 190 countries for starting a business. This might be presented as a challenge for women’s economic empowerment.

Why does women’s economic empowerment matter?

Evidence suggests that increasing women’s power over economic resources yield positive externalities to the entire society and economy. Mckinsey (2018) projects that gender equality in Cambodia could lead to an increase of 11.9% above and beyond business-as-usual GDP in 2025. Also, McKinney notes that advancing gender equality in the Asia Pacific region could increase 12% of annual GDP in 2025, adding $4.5 trillion to the region’s GDP. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports that higher female earnings translate into greater investment in children’s education, health and nutrition which leads to economic growth in the long-run. Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and Jonathan D. Ostry, Deputy Director of the Research Department at the IMF, note that there are four key benefits from narrowing gender gaps including a bigger boost to economic growth, higher productivity, higher male incomes and a bigger payoff to reducing gender barriers along development paths. The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) claims that gender equality in European Union (EU) would lead to an increase in EU’s GDP per capita to 9.6% which amounts to €3.15 trillion by 2050 from 6.1% (€1.95 trillion). EIGE also notes that an improvement of gender equality in EU would lead to an increase of 10.5 million jobs in 2050 in which about 70% of these jobs would be taken by women.

Who are the vulnerable women?

According to the Cambodian Government’s National Social Protection Strategy for the Poor and Vulnerable (2011-2015), the government categorized vulnerable people into 17 groups including: (1) Infants and children, (2) Girls and women of reproductive age, (3) Households vulnerable to food insecurity and unemployment, (4) Indigenous and ethnic minorities, (5) Elderly people, (6) People with chronic illness, (7) People with disability, (8) Orphans, (9) Youth and children at risk, (10) Victims of violence, abuse and exploitation, (11) Families of immigrants, (12) Homeless people, (13) Veterans, (14) Single mothers, (15) Widows, (16) Pregnant women, and (17) Child workers. Women are overwhelmingly represented in these categories.

Key Challenges to Enlarging Women’s Economic Empowerment Opportunity

Cambodia sets a high ambition to advance its economic status to the upper middle-income economy by 2030 and high-income country by 2050. Cambodia announced high-level commitment to promote gender equality in the country at the United Nations Headquarter in September 2015. To deliver this high-level commitment, Cambodia has to overcomes three significant challenges including a lack of policy priorities to promote women’s economic empowerment, low public investment on women’s empowerment and gender equality, and a lack of effective coordination amongst the line-ministries.

Cambodia, until present, does not have a women’s economic empowerment policy/strategy. The macroeconomic policy framework fails to address the structural disadvantage faced by women such as unpaid care work, underpaid work and undervalue employment. Cambodia adopted the Industrial Development Policy 2015-2025 to promote growth and jobs creation in the agriculture, tourism and service sectors. The policy prioritizes four factors to sustain the economic growth including attracting foreign direct investment, promoting of small and medium enterprise, improving technology and skills-development and coordinating supporting policies. However, the policy has not explicitly tackle gender disparity within these sectors. Ministry of Women’s Affairs reports that, even though most women-owned enterprises are still concentrated in low productivity industrial sectors, the Industrial Development Policy 2015-2025 does not explicitly tackle the challenges faced by women.

Cambodia’s investment on women’s economic empowerment remains significantly low. Cambodia’s national budget does not reflect holistic and integrated approach to tackle gender inequality and a narrow economic opportunity for women in Cambodia. The current budget allocations are insufficient to generate the promising gender equality outcomes. Until present, Cambodia has not sufficiently integrated the gender-perspective into the national budgeting framework and the public finance management reform. A lack of gender-responsive budgeting and planning might lead to a lack of financial and human resources to effectively design the gender-specific national policies and efficiently implement the policies at the sub-national and local levels. As a consequence, Cambodia made slow progress in term of promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment in the development indicators. Women, therefore, receive less benefit than men in economic and social development.

Cambodia has a lack of effective WEE mainstreaming mechanism at the relevant line-ministries. Currently, there is no institutional arrangement at the ministerial level to integrate or mainstream women’s economic empowerment into the national policies, strategies or frameworks. Moreover, at the high-level development coordination such as CDC and CRDP, the gender mainstreaming is not sufficient enough to encourage the policymakers to shape the gender-specific and gender-related development priorities.

These challenges present the opportunity for the new mandate of the government to craft a new women’s economic empowerment strategy that is inclusive and responsive to meet the macroeconomic ambition 2030 and 2050. They also provide a window opportunity for the government, especially MoWA, to establish an effective working group to mainstream gender at the CDC, CRDB and the inter-ministry level.

International Experience and Learning

Promoting women’s economic empowerment gains more attentions to be one of the development choices to achieve sustainable development. There is no offshell solutions for women’s economic empowerment.

The United Nations Economic and Social Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) noted that advancing women’s economic empowerment requires measures that ensures equality of rights and opportunities for women and men and promotes work-life balance. UNESCAP suggests a number of measures to promote work-life balance including recognizing, reducing and redistributing unpaid care work, boosting public investment in social care service infrastructure, improving allocation of resources using gender-responsive budgeting, and enhancing access to productive assets. UNESCP suggests that, to promote equality of rights and opportunities for women, national government has to eliminate discriminatory legal provisions. The equality in the legal provision means that make the labor market works for women and is associated with more women working and earning more relative to men. An inclusive social protection policy that support workers in the informal sector and domestic workers would help a country to boost women’s economic empowerment and sustainable development.

OECD suggests four gender-responsive interventions to enlarge women’s economic opportunity that can generate multiple benefits for women’s time use for unpaid care work. These four dimensions are public services, infrastructure, social protection and redistributing responsibility within the household for unpaid care and domestic work. The infrastructure includes improved access to safe water, sanitation and clean energy. OECD notes that the development of infrastructure needs to take account of gender disparity in the sector which might not be able to realize potential women’s economic empowerment. The design of the infrastructure needs to be inclusive that addresses the strategic needs of women and girls. The social protection needs to take account of women who provide unpaid cares and own account works. The government needs to provide sufficient support through subsidizing early childcare to enable women to return to employment. Redistributing care responsibilities might be the most challenging task in many patriarchal countries. The government might need to work more with civil society organizations that closely engage with the local people to change their perception of gender roles and family responsibilities.

Swedish government has drawn an example for being a feminist government through putting women at the heart of all decision-making and resource allocation. Sweden has used gender-responsive budgeting as an important component of gender-mainstreaming. The macroeconomic framework needs to employ a gender-sensitive approach that includes gender equality impact analysis and systematic use of data and statistics disaggregated sex.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Cambodia can enlarge economic opportunities for vulnerable women through three key policy solutions including designing and implementing a women’s economic empowerment strategy, employing gender-responsive budgeting, and designing a women’s economic empowerment coordinating mechanism to mainstream WEE concept at the high level government institutions such as CDC, CRDB, MoEF and MoI.

A women’s economic empowerment strategy should integrate following components:

Gender-responsive public services that make the infrastructure works for gender equality such as early childhood and childcare infrastructure and human resources that give women opportunity to reintegrated into paid work after maternity.

  • Gender-responsive social protection that supports women in accessing social and economic opportunity such as parental social protection and tax-financed pension schemes.
  • Recognizing, reducing and redistributing unpaid care responsibilities within the households
  • Government’s investment mechanism to build women’s human capital and capabilities to absorb the benefits of social and economic development in Cambodia
  • Government’s mechanism to increase access to sustainable financial services that for women, especially marginalized women such as smallholder famers, street venders, and family’s business owners
  • Establishing gender-sensitive data management that can gather sufficient information and evidence to support the policy implementation

A gender-responsive budgeting is recommended to develop to ensure gender-sensitive resource allocation. A gender-responsive budgeting would guide the macroeconomic framework to better response to the real development needs, especially the needs to promote gender equality and women’s economic empowerment.

A women’s economic empowerment coordinating mechanism should be established to mainstream WEE concept at the high level government institutions such as CDC, CRDB, MoEF and MoI. It should be built upon the existing coordinating mechanism of the ministry through assigning at least one gender expert in each technical working group at the line-ministries. Moreover, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs should consider to establish a technical working group to promote women’s economic empowerment that is co-chaired by the representatives of development partners, Ministry of Women’s Affairs and civil society organizations. The technical working group would support MoWA to design, implement and mainstream women’s economic perspectives in the line-ministries.


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Text by: Sotheary You/Oxfam