In Verisk Maplecroft’s Women and Girls’ Rights Index 2017, Cambodia is ranked 72nd out of 198 countries (where ranks closer to one denote greatest risk). This means that businesses and investors are at ‘high risk’ of association with practices that discriminate against, or otherwise limit or infringe upon the rights of women and girls.
Increased access to education has resulted in 94% net enrolment rates for girls in primary school. However, only 46% of boys and 45% girls in Cambodia attend secondary school, and less than half of those enrolled actually complete their secondary education – a ratio far below that of many other lower middle income countries. Many drop out for economic reasons, especially in rural areas, where girls still hold traditional roles in the household. Where girls are out of school, they are more likely to be exploited in the sex trade. Although the Cambodian government has made great advances in clamping down on the child sex trade, raids by the authorities continue to discover underage girls working in brothels.
Technical education is not aligned with market needs and few girls access it. Although girls are increasingly attending university, the types of study that girls enrol in often lack correlation to the labour market. As a result, the gender gap at tertiary education limits girls’ access to the higher income levels of the labour market.
Early and forced marriage is rare. However, adolescent pregnancy rates continue to be relatively high, with approximately 52 births for every 100,000 girls aged 15-19. Pregnancy-related complications present serious health concerns for both mother and child, especially in rural areas. This is despite recent improvements in maternal health, including increased access to pre- and post-natal checks and to hospital-based births, and a decrease in maternal mortality.
According to the latest available data from the ILO, Cambodia has one of the highest rates of female labour force participation in the region at 77.5%. This is nevertheless considerably lower than the male labour force participation, at 87.9%. Most women are engaged in agriculture, including forestry and fisheries (75.1%), followed by services (15.9%) and industry and manufacturing (9%). The agriculture sector is largely subsistence-based, and many women work casually or unpaid as family workers. The sector is plagued by low productivity, low returns and weak economic security. Therefore, more and more women are seeking wage employment in the growing garment industry, which employs more women than men. However, many of these women must leave behind their families, including young children and babies, in rural areas, to work in urban factories.
While the increase in family incomes has benefited the Cambodian economy, it comes at a cost. Despite government plans to phase out fixed duration contracts (FDCs), most of the young female employees in the garment sector work under this arrangement, which circumvents the right to maternity leave guaranteed by regular contracts. When women do fall pregnant, they often get demoted or their contracts are terminated. According to Sophea Chrek, technical assistant at the Workers Information Center (WIC) in Phnom Penh, many garment workers consider themselves “too poor” to have children.