The Debate | Opinion

For Cambodian Women, Equality Starts in the Home

The unequal distribution of household chores affects Cambodian women’s economic inclusion.

For Cambodian Women, Equality Starts in the Home
Credit: Depositphotos

There is no country in the world where men and women perform an equal share of unpaid care or household work. According to a report released by International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2018 on care work and care jobs, in the Asia-Pacific, women disproportionately spend more time – up to four times more – on unpaid care work compared to men.

In Cambodia, the imbalance is particularly severe. Cambodian men, as husbands, perform only one-tenth of their families’ caring and household services per day, while women perform the vast majority of the cooking, cleaning, and direct care work. Cambodian men spend 18 minutes on this work per day compared with the 188 minutes spent by women, according to the ILO. Shockingly, out of the 67 countries surveyed in the report, it is Cambodia’s men who spend the least amount of time contributing to this type of labor.

This enormous gap needs to be closed in order for our society to achieve full economic and societal inclusion of women. Without a proper solution to this issue, the unfair allocation of household chores will continue to impact women’s opportunities for economic participation and broader societal contribution.

This is an issue that obviously has a real impact on our society as a whole, but we can’t forget the impact it has on individuals and on families. A recent article on this topic from the Phnom Penh Post featured the story of Saroeuna, a Cambodian woman who is a wife and mother of six young children. She says that working at night is the only income-generating option she has, given that her time is consumed by household chores and childcare duties during the day. Saroeuna’s case reflects the experience of other Cambodian women who not only deal with the heavy burden of poverty, but also must manage – often solely – the burden of doing household chores, caring for children, the ill, and the elderly.

Cambodia’s women labor made up approximately 48 percent of the total labor force as of 2018, or about 80 percent of the total female population in Cambodia. A fair share of women’s participation in the labor market seems like an unmitigated achievement. However, as Saroeuna’s case illustrates, women’s participation in the formal economy does not automatically mean that they can fully utilize the opportunities and benefits that should be available to them.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Based on the OECD’s principle of inclusive growth, women and men should both be able to contribute to and gain full benefits from economic growth. Women who are in Saroeuna’s position, who are only able to work at night or in between hours of unpaid household and care work, are likely to struggle to gain the full benefit of their work. The potential reasons are many: first, Saroeuna might not be able to release her potential due to her tiredness from daytime housework duties, not to mention the many risks involved with night shift jobs for women in Cambodia. The high number of women participating in the economy does not necessarily point to their economic inclusion.

Societal expectations about women’s role in the family plays a large role in limiting their potential to participate in economic activities freely and actively, pointed out Celia Boyd, the Managing Director of SHE Investments, a social enterprise that supports small businesses run by Cambodian women. The household burden has prevented Cambodia’s women from realizing their potential as some of them choose to quit their job or business due to the overburden of housework and care work.

This situation has only been worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, as reported by a recent United Nations Gender Equality Country Analysis. According to the U.N., lockdowns and other health measures (including school closures) have increased Cambodian women’s domestic burden, such as cleaning and cooking, assisting children with their schoolwork, and supporting elders.

This demanding but unpaid domestic work affects women’s ability to dedicate themselves fully to economic participation outside of the home. With limited time and energy to advance themselves, women are excluded from educational, employment, and economic opportunities, resulting in some of them having little choice but to remain a housewives, while others are pushed into the informal sector, earning less income, and remaining more vulnerable to labor exploitation.

A 2012 study on Gendered Meanings of Housework (Non)-Participation in Cambodia, based on oral histories, focus groups, and interviews, found that Cambodia’s uneven division of unpaid labor is based both on tradition – with the home being perceived as a direct reflection of women’s “virtuousness and domestic skills” – and on economic necessity. Historically, married Cambodian women who are not involved in income earning activities, or who earn less than their husbands, do not dare to ask or challenge their husbands to share the household burden. As the paper points out, “women feel it necessary to sustain the status quo, firstly, because they perceive they have no alternative option than to do so, and secondly, because housework neglect may, in their eyes, result in abandonment, separation, or divorce.”

While the root of this labor burden imbalance has been thoroughly unpacked by researchers, the question remains: Are there any Cambodian government policies that have been designed to respond to this unequal division of household labor and its impact on women’s economic inclusion?

Despite the fact that Cambodia’s 1993 Constitution states that housework holds the same value as work outside the home, in practice this does not seem to be the case. In Cambodia, the government still treats the unfair sharing of housework and care work as a minor problem.

Currently, there is no practical mechanism or legislative framework to encourage men to share the responsibility for housework with their partners. Because it does not generate income, unpaid work is not included in the national account. Despite being a daily necessity for every household; however, policymakers do not see unpaid work as contributing to overall economic growth.  Hence, policymakers have not addressed unpaid work issues through national policies, such as Cambodia’s macroeconomic policy, the National Action Plan to Prevent Violence against Women, and Cambodia’s Gender Strategic Plan (Neary Rattanak).

But there are steps that Cambodia could take. We could look to Japan as an example. In 2021, the country passed a bill to revise the law on child care leave, allowing fathers to take a total of four weeks off, giving fathers more flexibility to share the burden of care. This four-week paid paternity leave will come into effect on October 1, 2022. There are no specific paternity leave entitlements in Cambodia’s Labor Law.

In answer to women’s economic inequality and uneven share of domestic work, women’s financial independence and stability are the keys. The Asian Development Bank has suggested that in order to address this issue, the government should support the growth of wages and employment opportunities, and improve working conditions for women through stronger enforcement of revised laws and regulations and access to training for women.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Once Cambodia’s women are well-equipped with skills and could earn a good income, the thinking is that whether they want it or not, their spouses have to share the household responsibility. When the burden of household labor does not fall solely on women, they will be more likely to be actively involved in economic activities of their choosing outside of the home. Only then will they achieve their full economic inclusion.

This commentary is part of the Social Cohesion Project, which invites young Cambodian researchers to conceptualize and model social cohesion in Cambodia. It is produced in partnership between Future Forum and UNDP Cambodia.