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    Trade Policy Cambodia


    International Trade Forum - Issue 3-4/2008 

    Note: Boundaries, names and designations used do not imply endorsement or acceptance by the International Trade Centre.

    By incorporating gender equality into trade policy, Cambodia is empowering women and boosting national economic performance.

    French poet and writer Louis Aragon once said, "Woman is the future of man", expressing his vision of a society that allows women to be more in charge of its destiny. It sounds so inspirational, but can it be realized?

    Is gender equality achievable in the economic domain? 

    Despite gender equality being recognized as a legitimate goal for humanity and stipulated in the Millennium Development Goals, progress is still slow, with gender norms and perceptions proving a challenge in many countries, including Cambodia.

    With extensive duties as family and community caretakers, women have limited opportunities to fully involve themselves in the economic and political arenas. Their activity in the economic sphere is usually confined to micro-businesses, an informal sector where policies and regulations fail to protect the interest of the economic actors. Moreover, globalization is placing increasing pressure on the development process worldwide. This creates additional challenges for women in staying ahead of change and in ensuring their inclusion in the development process which would lead to their equal rights to earn a decent living.

    Trade, undoubtedly an important aspect of globalization, has notable impact on growth, employment and business opportunities, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). It influences income distribution between men and women, and can have significant consequences for social and gender equality. However, in 2004 the International Labour Organization and UNCTAD indicated that women are still confined in their role and position in the economy. Women are offered fewer opportunities than their male counterparts, with outcomes such as insufficient participation in the formal labour market, poor conditions of work and quality of employment, labour division with job stereotypes, lack of empowerment, inequality of wages for the same job and difficulty in accessing basic services and resources such as land and credit.

    There are tremendous challenges for increasing women's economic opportunities, particularly within the context of overall poverty reduction and development challenges facing Cambodia. But there are also clear opportunities to respond to these challenges.

    A Cambodian proverb states that "Helping women is helping yourself". Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen incorporated this message, which highlights the role of women as the backbone of the national economy and society, in the Government's Rectangular Strategy 2004-2008. The national policy framework, the gender policies of donors and the Ministry of Women's Affairs' mandate to promote the role and status of women in Cambodia all provide potential entry points for advocacy and action.

    From commitments to actions 

    I don't believe that continuing to implement small economic projects is the key to success. Isolating women from the macro-level decision-making process is not an approach holistic enough to compensate for the scale of challenges in the global trade arena. New ways of thinking are needed to tackle the issue of gender equality, particularly in the economic sphere.

    We need to update knowledge and communication, set up reliable data with good analysis, advocate professionally and strongly with skills, obtain adequate financial support, upgrade the capacity of women and, most of all, strengthen the structural support to systematically mainstream women's issues in sectoral domains.

    According to my experience, the economic liberation of women, notably through equal education opportunities, is crucial to providing equal economic footing since it alleviates so many of the problems women face. Poverty tends to influence women's condition more directly.

    The development context of Cambodia 

    Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in East Asia with 34% of households living below the national poverty line. Over 70% of households are dependent on agriculture as their primary source of livelihood, although economic growth has been mainly focused on export opportunities such as garment manufacturing and tourism. The nation's qualified human resources are severely depleted. Rebuilding the institutions, basic services and human capital is taking time, creating greater concerns within the context of market-oriented economy and globalization. An increasing youth population presents new challenges in terms of employment opportunities, with 60% of the total population now under the age of 25.

    Gender inequalities exist due to tradition and gender norms that assign women a lower status than men, as well as the legacies of war which may be contributing to an increasingly high level of violence.

    Women in the economy of Cambodia 

    The labour force participation rate for women in Cambodia is very high by regional standards, with 71% of all women aged 15 and older in the workforce. Women comprise nearly half the labour force (49.4%), however 83% of female workers are self-employed or unpaid family workers. Over half of the poor are women living in rural areas. There are clear gender differences in occupations and industries, with a move from agriculture to industry and services for both men and women. Apart from agriculture, the primary occupations for women living outside the capital Phnom Penh are trade (42%) and manufacturing (30%, mostly in home-based production).

    However, household work and childcare, along with a low level of literacy and education, make it difficult for many women to enter the labour market.

    The following is a summary of the recommendations of the Ministry for Women's Affairs (MWA) and its interventions in trade policy development, which ensure that women are considered at all levels of government policy.

    Macro-level interventions

    Gender-responsive policy in trade sector development      As a country in transition, Cambodia is in the process of implementing the legal frameworks and administrative measures needed to move to a modern and democratic state. Efforts are under way to shift from project-oriented planning to longer-term sectoral strategies and results-based programming and budgeting. Each of these reforms provides opportunities for ensuring that gender concerns are taken into consideration.

    The MWA has actively engaged with senior policymakers and cultivated high-level support to raise the profile of gender equality as a national priority, marking it as the responsibility of line ministries.

    Gender responsive measures have been integrated into many chapters of the National Strategic Development Plan 2006-2010. Key gender indicators are reflected to include equity for women employed in agriculture, industry and services, and poverty reduction is central to the Government's efforts.

    Mainstreaming gender into the effectiveness of aid 

    There is a gradual shift to Programme-Based Approaches (PBAs) to sectoral planning and resource allocation in Cambodia, including an anticipated PBA for trade. It is important that gender dimensions are fully taken into consideration in their development. The MWA has been actively advocating for

    donors to pay greater attention to gender concerns in specific programmes, which in turn has strengthened the incentives for government institutions to be more gender-responsive. The effective inclusion of a gender specialist in a recent planning mission for the Cambodia Public Financial Management Reform Programme provided an example of how a gender perspective can be integrated into planning processes.

    The MWA supported the establishment and operation of a Technical Working Group on Gender, as part of the Government-Donor Consultative process, and of Gender Mainstreaming Action Groups (GMAGs) in line ministries responsible for economic policy, including the Ministry of Commerce (MoC), Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy (MIME), Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training (MLVT), Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) and Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology (MWRAM).

    Table 1. 

    The positioning of 19 trade sectors according to their export potential and human development impact


    Statistics and gender analysis 

    Good statistics, research and analysis are essential to identifying gender concerns objectively. The MWA has actively worked with the National Institute of Statistics to ensure that national surveys provide the information needed to understand the contributions, roles and constraints of women and men in the economy. The Cambodia Gender Assessment has been an important tool for identifying priorities for advocacy and action.

    The MWA is also encouraging increased investment in the capacity for gender analysis, research and advocacy. If equipped with the right attitudes and skills, sectoral experts could undertake gender analysis within their own area of expertise and would be well placed to formulate technically sound responses to gender inequalities.

    Meso-level interventions

    Advocacy for specific policies and programmes     The MWA is an active advocate for pro-poor and gender-responsive trade. For example, by contributing to an MoC workshop on globalization and the Integrated Framework for Trade-related Technical Assistance in 2001, the MWA helped to attract support for the development of the silk and handicraft industries. A Silk Sector Strategy has since been developed with ITC support, which shares responsibility for implementation between the MoC, MAFF and MWA.

    The same year, the MWA organized a national workshop, Women and Promoting Micro and Small Enterprise Development, with support from the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The workshop stimulated interest within MIME in formulating a development framework for small to medium-sized enterprises, which is now helping to create a more conducive business environment for their development.

    The MWA is also an active advocate for strengthening the policy framework to support safe migration, working in close consultation with the MLVT. This is important for both labour export and internal migration related to industrial development, particularly in export promotion zones.

    The MWA has also represented women's interests in trade-related policy formation and was asked to provide a gender perspective during the process of Cambodia's candidature to become a member of the World Trade Organization.

    Integrating gender considerations into the identification of trade sector development priorities 

    Cambodia's 2007 Diagnostic Trade Integration Study (DTIS) included the "impact on employment of women" as part of the socio-economic impact index used to assess opportunities for export development.

    Three of the 19 products and services assessed in the 2007 DTIS are particularly important for women (see Table 1). In the garment and footwear industries, which accounted for 70% of total exports and 16% of gross domestic product in 2006, 80% of employees are women. And silk weaving and silk products, despite having relatively low export potential at this time, have medium to high human development impact, with particular importance for women.

    Over 70% of households are dependent on the agricultural industry for their primary source of livelihood, with particularly high involvement of women at the processing levels. Tourism has been the second most important source of economic growth in Cambodia in recent years, yet relatively little is known about the industry's socio-economic impact or the gender distribution of work and benefits. Further study is needed.

    Supporting gender mainstreaming in line ministries 

    Gender workshops, jointly organized by MWA and GMAGs, have helped to broaden understanding of gender concerns within the scope of ministries' mandates. Training needs to go beyond awareness-raising and challenge participants to think more deeply about social norms that are perpetuating gender inequalities, how this relates to their own lives, and the tangible actions that are needed to achieve greater gender equality within trade-related services and institutions.

    The MWA has also been assisting line ministry GMAGs to develop Gender Mainstreaming Action Plans. The MoC and MIME gender plans both identify programmatic areas for development, including building the capacity, skills and confidence of women in the informal economy, increasing women's access to microfinance; promoting registration of women-owned businesses; and increasing women's access to information on productivity, trade and services.

    The MAFF and MWRAM gender action plans for agriculture and water recognize the need to enhance the productive role of women in agricultural development; empower women to fully benefit from governmental assistance programmes; provide their own "food-security safety nets" such as rice banks; and represent their own interests in political and administrative environments. They are working towards improving women's access to irrigation and strengthening overall participation in water management.

    Priority is also given to strengthening women's capacity, skills, confidence and opportunities for participation in aspects of ministries' work.

    Micro-level interventions

    Collaboration between the MWA and trade-related line ministries     Cambodia's Silk Sector Strategy is helping to strengthen the competitiveness of enterprises in the silk sector across the value chain by improving the quality and productivity of silk weavers. The MWA is a representative of the MoC-led steering committee.

    Collaborative efforts have also included work with MoC and the ADB on mitigating against the impact of the end of the Cambodian Multi-Fibre Agreement; implementing the one-village, one-product policy, including assessing regional know-how, skills and market potential, and strengthening market access and productivity; and leading an inter-ministerial taskforce on beer promoters to protect the rights, dignity and safety of female beer promoters.

    MWA strategic actions 

    It is sometimes necessary to demonstrate what needs to be done and how. The MWA takes the lead in developing services that are not yet a priority of line ministries. This has included transforming traditional skills-training centres into women-friendly enterprise development services and one-stop business registration centres; supporting local partners in organizing associations of women entrepreneurs to increase their bargaining power and voice in public-private forums; introducing village-based food processing technologies; and facilitating links between village-based producers and urban markets. In one instance, a market was developed at a border crossing into Thailand in order to increase livelihood alternatives for women with concerns about the risk of trafficking. The Ministry of Tourism subsequently used this as a model for another market in a beach resort area.

    Statistics suggest an estimated 80% of the workforce is in the informal sector of the economy, contributing 62% of gross domestic product, so the MWA has invited the assistance of a team from an international advocacy non-governmental organization, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing. In response, the Government has committed to establishing an inter-ministerial taskforce to examine the informal economy and ease the transition for those wishing to move into formal employment, with all of the concomitant economic benefits.

    "Men are gold and women are precious gems"(Cambodian proverb) 

    Women are involved in every facet of the economy and, in Cambodia at least, they are the backbone of economic prosperity and development. Opportunities for their economic development are numerous.

    When women have the chance to be educated and the freedom to work in whatever fields they choose, their ownership will create economic opportunities that contribute to their own prosperity and the growth and development of the country. Gender equality is also a deed in good governance, providing equal opportunity to both men and women and enabling both genders to support sustainable growth and development.

    Before acceding to the benefits of trade presented to them, women have many challenges to face. We need to raise awareness of policy- and decision-makers to foster a business environment conducive to poverty reduction and broad-based economic growth; enable women to equitably benefit from new employment opportunities; strengthen legal enforcement mechanisms to equitably protect the rights of male and female workers; and strengthen the capacity of women to equitably contribute to and benefit from economic growth.

    A fair share in the economic sphere can only come from letting women contribute to policy development. The result will be a win-win situation that will enhance economic competitiveness and productivity, leading to the empowerment of not only women, but the whole nation.

    Dr Kantha Phavi Ing

    Dr Ing left Cambodia at a young age during the civil war, and went on to study in Paris where she graduated as a medical doctor, with a specialization in nutrition. She then gained a master's degree in public administration from the French Ecole nationale d'administration (National administration school). While practising medicine in Paris, she was deputy secretary general of the Cambodian doctors' association, whose objective was to provide medical assistance to Cambodia.  

    Twenty years after leaving Cambodia, Dr Ing returned as part of a medical mission to a remote area in the north of the country. She realized that her skills could be of greater use to the Cambodian people. She returned for good two years later, but with no thoughts of becoming involved in either politics or women's issues. Now, however, she has worked for the Government of Cambodia for more than ten years and was recently reappointed for a second mandate as Minister for Women's Affairs.


    1. Macro-level interventions
      Advocating for gender-responsive policy in trade sector development
      Mainstreaming gender into the effectiveness of aid Obtaining sex-disaggregated statistics and gender analysis
    2. Meso-level interventions
      Advocating for specific policies and programmes
      Integrating gender considerations into the identification of trade-sector development priorities
      Supporting gender mainstreaming in line ministries
    3. Micro-level interventions
      Collaborating with trade-related line ministries
      Presenting strategic actions to assist women

    Glossary to key acronyms

    MWA - Ministry for Women's Affairs GMAG - Gender Mainstreaming Action Group
    MoC - Ministry of Commerce
    MIME - Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy
    MLVT - Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training
    MAFF - Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
    MWRAM - Ministry of Water, Resources and Meteorology
    PBA - Programme-Based Approach
    ADB - Asian Development Bank
    DTIS - Diagnostic Trade Integration Study