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Gender Inequality Should Not Be Overlooked Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

Written by: Sok Chhengleang, a 4th-year student majoring in International Relations at the University of Cambodia

Edited by: Heng Kimkong, a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at Cambodia Development Center and a PhD Candidate in Education at The University of Queensland,  Australia

Photo Credit: "Cambodia Women's Empowerment Project - Bamboo Crafting" by UN Women Asia & the Pacific is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It has already been several months since February 20 when the third outbreak of community transmission of COVID-19 occured in Cambodia. As I observed, the government and healthcare workers have been working persistently to combat COVID-19 by implementing measures and regulations such as curfews, lockdown and zoning systems to curb the community outbreak so that the country can hopefully reopen the economy as soon as possible. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected our daily lives, particularly by restricting our socio-economic activities, leading to panic stocking, food insecurity and other issues. While hundreds of new infected cases are confirmed every day, I believe the pandemic becomes a major obstacle to hinder the progress of narrowing the gender inequality gap. In particular, while all infected patients suffer from the virus, women tend to be the most affected victims of the pandemic. 

How Does the Pandemic Increase the Challenges for Cambodian Women?

During this hard time, the loss of jobs may befall people in general, but most remarkably, Cambodian women will become more financially vulnerable, which can exacerbate gender imbalance in the family and community. Simply looking into the garment industry, a key sector which accounts for 80 percent of Cambodia's export revenue, women made up 85 percent of the more than 650,000 workers. This sector has contributed substantially to Cambodia’s economic growth and the survival of many Cambodian families. However, due to the pandemic, many garment factories have been suspended and even closed down. It is estimated that 200 factories would  either discontinue operations temporarily or lower productivity. This has led to a loss of many jobs that serve as the only source of income for many workers. Many women working in this industry have faced challenges on a daily basis even before the COVID-19 crisis. With the advent of the pandemic, their lives face greater challenges from a dual crisis: health and economic crisis. Thus, the pandemic has increased challenges and difficulties for many Cambodian women. Their lives have become more dependent and vulnerable.

While the loss of jobs has become a main concern for balancing gender roles between men and women, another issue has arisen, that  is, gender-based violence -- “harmful acts directed at an individual based on their gender”. Staying home is now not easy for women who  lost their financial independence due to their job loss. Economic stress from financial insecurity and psychological stress, including anxiety and fear of infection, have already disheartened them. Beyond these, they become helpless and subject to sexual assault or violence that might be committed by their partners while being stuck at home. According to a recent report by the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, one in five women in Cambodia have suffered violence from their partners, family members, colleagues, acquaintances or public officials, and  the rate of incidence has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, the pandemic has constrained women’s ability to access sexual and reproductive healthcare services or even menstrual hygiene materials. Considering the case of maternity, there are increased risks for pregnant women who may have difficulty accessing proper healthcare during their quarantine or self-isolation. A growing number of women were reported to have canceled their appointments for fear of getting infected with the virus. The stress that pregnant women face and their lack of access to appropriate health services will drastically affect the health and well-being of the mother and the fetus; thus, maternal and infant mortality rates are likely to rise .

While countries around the world embrace digital platforms to offer opportunities for students to continue their education, Cambodia is no exception because the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports (MoEYS), with support from relevant stakeholders, has introduced digital learning apps and broadcast educational programs through television and radio to provide Cambodian students with access to educational opportunities. However, 1.4 million Cambodian students were reportedly unable to access e-learning platforms during the pandemic. Hence, there is a probability that students whose access to the internet or digital infrastructure is limited would abandon their studies. If this happens, families may prefer daughters to sons to quit school if they have financial limitations during this difficult time because when daughters stay at home, they can help with the housework as they are more attached to household responsibilities then sons. Thus, the saying “women evolve only around the stove” that we all have been trying to break for a long time will be reinforced and unfortunately take over our society again. In sum, the longer the pandemic lasts , the worse gender inequality becomes.

Conclusion and Suggestions

I have always believed that everyone deserves to be equally appreciated regardless of their gender, race, and social status, but witnessing these kinds of incidents happening on women, it seems that gender inequality has deteriorated because women and girls are involuntarily positioned to become the most vulnerable victims of  the pandemic. In fact, women deserve to be protected, and to address the issue of gender inequality, a collective action is needed. Below are a few suggestions. 

  • Firstly, the Royal Government of Cambodia and relevant stakeholders should consider strengthening the social protection system and continue to provide  short-term emergency relief to targeted vulnerable groups. Making information related to gender issues and ways of seeking help available in both rural and urban areas can be  part of the solution to gender inequality, This can be conducted through both community campaigns and online platforms including social media. Perpetrators of sexual assault and violence against women should be held accountable for their wrongdoings with fairness, transparency, and responsiveness from the authority. Health services should prepare appropriate rooms which can guarantee that pregnant women would feel safe mentally and physically when coming to hospitals for their health services or quarantine. The issue of mental health should no longer be stigmatized but discussed among the community, family members, and even peers. While trying to offer online learning opportunities, MoEYS should address the issue of how the pandemic affects the dropout rate of female students and seek immediate solutions.
  • Secondly, women themselves should not hesitate to seek help if they feel they are subject to any violence or abuse. They should choose to either inform the authority directly or indirectly so that they can intervene on time. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has provided a hotline that allows people to report any case related to violence across the capital and provinces so women can make use of this service for their own well-being
  • Thirdly, I believe actions taken by relevant ministries alone won’t be enough if all individuals don’t fully participate. As such, we can contribute to make the voice of women more powerful by spreading relevant information and raising public awareness of these pressing issues such as gender-based violence to make them become subjects of intolerance for all. Moreover, if we happen to witness such violence or injustice against women, be their helpers, report to the authorities, and protect them at all cost because no more women  deserve to suffer from any gender-based violence or discrimination. 

In conclusion, despite the many difficulties that we encounter during the pandemic, gender inequality should not be overlooked because this issue has negatively impacted our society for such  a long time. While the goal to achieve equality for women has yet to be achieved,  the pandemic has worsened the situation, making it even more difficult for the government and relevant stakeholders to improve gender equality in the country. Thus, I believe joint efforts from everyone is the way forward. When we join hands together, we can take steps to create a safe, equal, and equitable society for all.