Addressing stereotypes: Harmful gender norms in Cambodia

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Employment in the garment sector provides an opportunity for female economic empowerment. Post pix

In the past two decades, Cambodia has witnessed rapid development. Underpinned by an average economic growth rate of 7.7 per cent per year, the Kingdom has supported significant improvements in education, health and poverty reduction.

Driven by a combination of agriculture and tourism, and garment sector exports, the unemployment rate is now 1.1 per cent, based on International Labour Organisation (ILO) modelled estimates.

In particular, the garment sector is a key engine of economic growth, with exports accounting for $8.02 billion in 2017.

Of the garment sector’s 635,000 workers, 90 per cent are women.

As described by CARE International, employment in the garment sector provides an opportunity for female economic empowerment.

This is, however, contingent on adequate protection of human and labour rights.

While Cambodia has made huge strides economically, harmful gender norms continue to perpetuate the inequality of men and women in the workplace and in wider society.

Specifically, this relates to the expectation of gendered roles as played out in the evolving power dynamics of traditionally male-dominated domains.

In Cambodia, as in many countries around the globe, a combination of rapid industrialisation and evolving family dynamics has challenged previously established gender norms.

‘Rules for Girls’

According to a study by Mona Lilja, traditional Cambodian gender norms still define the acceptable behaviour of women and men.

This goes beyond implicit norms to an explicit code of conduct in the Chbab Srey – literally “Rules for Girls” – which outlines the expected behaviours of Cambodian women.

In 2007, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs requested that the reading be pulled from the school curriculum, but only a few rules were eliminated.

A shorter version is still taught in Grades 7 to 9.

As scholars Katherine Brickell and Sylvia Chant describe, societal norms have created the perception that chores belong to women.

As acknowledged by the Parliament Institute of Cambodia, societal norms make women responsible for taking care of family and for performing domestic tasks like shopping, cooking and cleaning.

In the context of the garment sector, the largest employer of women in Cambodia, such attitudes have resulted in the unacceptable outcomes of over-representation in low-skilled roles, unequal pay and sexual harassment (CARE, 2017).

Compared to women, Cambodian men seem to enjoy much more freedom from societal expectations.

However, they too are constrained by gender norms.

This observation is supported by research from Gender and Development for Cambodia, which demonstrated that Cambodian men are also expected to behave in certain ways.

They are expected to be well educated, high earners and the leader of their families.

If a family fails to meet its needs, the man is at fault for his weak leadership.

Recently a male colleague said: “Men must be the backbone of the family. We have to be well educated to generate income to support our family and also to advise our children.”

As Chapter III of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia makes clear, everyone, regardless of gender, has the right to make their own choices.

Everyone has the right to work. Everyone has the right to choose where they want to work.

This includes Cambodian women, who have the right to work where they want – in the home or outside of it.

Moreover, women and men should have the same responsibility towards the family.

As Cambodia becomes more and more modern, its outdated gender norms cannot be maintained.

With today’s free flow of information and exchange of cultures, people are beginning to perceive themselves differently and question their role in society.

Challenging old concepts is never an easy task, but it is better for Cambodians to be aware of our culture’s traditional gender norms – they are there, but we should not let them control our lives.

Leabphea Chin is a Young Research Fellow at Future Forum, an independent, public policy think tank based in Phnom Penh. She is currently conducting a research project on women’s empowerment from a cultural perspective.