Gender Inequality in Modern Cambodia
Historically gender roles in Khmer culture are separated into male-dominated workforces and woman homemakers. The role of childrearing, cooking and housekeeping are traditionally women’s jobs in the family. In modern Cambodia, not much has changed yet. Women in the countryside are still assigned to household work, subject to income disparity compared to male counterparts and taking care of children. In the not-so-distant past, daughters were thought to follow this role and thus were not even permitted to school. The “chance” that a girl has to be independent in the future is limited based on these traditional roles and this is reflected in country sides, villages and towns today. Spurring economic activity for women in Cambodia through opportunity, education and liberating ideology to break their traditional roles towards a “freed” woman from patriarchy is an emerging process.
Emerging opportunities for women in a society becoming modernized face conflict with patriarchy that still exists. Male dominated households make women take care of babies as sole responsibilities. The economic well-being of the family is not part of women’s responsibilities, creating inequality in decision making in the household. This creates economic inequality between genders and is the cause for poverty for a lot of women in Cambodia today. Many NGOs, projects and efforts around helping women achieve independence provide opportunities through training, employment and providing resources to operate small businesses. These include sewing, crafting arts production and hospitality opportunities in foreign (and local) hotels, households and institutions. Income inequality for these women who have found gainful work is vast still in comparison. The cultural status quo is that the woman depends on the man in the household for finances as inferior to the breadwinner role of a man similarly to the children as well. The additional roles woman have in the house are a barrier to equality as they bear this opportunity cost of their traditional responsibilities that in a gender equal society could be shared.
Compounding the barrier to opportunity for women in Cambodia today is the restriction to education. Traditional patriarchal society says men have more responsibilities in the house and thus should achieve more education to progress into job-related roles that could support his family while selectively keeping girls in the house to practice housekeeping and prepare for their traditional roles. Dominance over women begins in childhood as these cultural ideals are implemented, enforced and practiced throughout society. Educational career paths are geared toward male students in a discriminatory manner as all facets of management are traditionally male-dominated. Spurring on chances for women education, breaking inequality are reflected in school enrollment in the developed towns in Cambodia. Still, the overlying traditional structure restricts women by channeling into lower tiered employment opportunities after finishing school. This barrier is shifted when “chance” is rewarded equally on basis of performance which is generally the aim of schools today in modern Cambodia as it is different from the past. Liberation from restrictive ideology about gender is the aim of a school when performance of a student is the basis of opening career paths. Thus, talent is not neglected and self-worth not diminished and ideal of equality across gender achieved when a woman can attend school and be a voice for others in the future.
Underlying ideology of a woman’s role in the family is restrictive to life chances in this format of familial division of labor. Progressing toward a more modern reality of equality requires that traditional gender roles be shared by the husband and wife. In a family, the woman must be thought to be given chance to work in a meaningful occupation, meaning the prospect of men doing work in the house, childrearing and cooking which were not part of a man’s role in society traditionally is possible. The gain of a man’s employment being greater than a woman’s on average should be shared within the family to emphasize the equality between genders. Income disparity on a macro institutional level needs to be addressed by the country as a whole, and this may as well be rooted in traditional Cambodian culture as well as modern society together. Breaking the cycle of poverty of women involves liberation from patriarchal family structure which is restrictive socially, economically and politically and is founded on the inferiority of women in societal, familial, traditional roles. The ideology of equality across genders will be emphasized by parents onto generations as in traditional Cambodian families the parents have power to influence ideologies. The repressed role of a woman in society is indeed changing yet inequality is widespread in the country because of traditional family roles.