A football match, and Cambodia’s women
Oct. 10 was a landmark night for the disparate nations of Cambodia and Iran. Facing off in Tehran for their World Cup 2022 qualifier, Iran inflicted the Cambodian national team’s heaviest ever defeat with 14-0.
But despite the game being a foregone conclusion, it was covered by major news outlets worldwide because present in the Azadi Stadium were 3,500 Iranian women who could freely attend a football match for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Journalists and activists seized the opportunity to use the game to discuss the wider status of women in the Islamic republic, with events off the field vastly overshadowing those on it.
So with politics and football inextricably linked in a sporting event transcending its on-the-field significance, next March’s return fixture in Phnom Penh also presents an opportunity to assess the current state of affairs for the women residing almost 6,000 kilometers away, in Cambodia, as well as in Southeast Asia.
Driven by an average growth rate of around 8 percent between 1998 and last year, Cambodia’s economy has remained among the world’s fastest-growing in recent decades. A key driver of this economic growth has been the garment sector, in which some 90 percent of its 635,000 workers are women.
Estimates show that the garment and footwear sectors lifted one-third of the population out of poverty between 2007 and 2014, while these jobs also provide a valuable source of autonomy for hundreds of thousands of women nationwide. But despite these great strides, patriarchal structures remain deeply entrenched in Cambodian society, in both the private and public spheres.
An example of this is Chbab Srey, a code of conduct outlining the ideal concept of a Cambodian woman that was taught in its entirety as part of the national curriculum as recently as 2007. Following complaints from the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, some rules were eliminated, but most are still taught from Grade 7 to Grade 9. Heavily rooted in traditional gender roles, Chbab Srey was described by the Cambodian Committee of Women as “codes of conduct… that teach women to be subservient to men,” and that the social values it has instilled contribute to the kingdom’s relatively high levels of spousal abuse and gender-based violence. Government statistics from 2015 showed that one in five Cambodian women reported experiencing physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner.
Just as concerning in the kingdom is a culture of victim-blaming — in part attributable to behavioral expectations placed upon women. A February study released by NGOs Klahaan, Urban Poor Women Development and People in Need showed that almost half of the respondents felt women were at least sometimes to blame for violence committed against them by their husbands.
On a macro level, statistics also highlight areas of concern. In the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap Report—an assessment of gender inequality in health, education, the economy and politics—Cambodia ranked 93rd of 149 countries. It fared poorest in the area of female educational attainment, ranking 119 of 149. It ranked 111th in literacy, with only 75 percent of women able to read and write. Men fared better at 86.5 percent. And while 90.3 percent of girls enrolled for primary education, only 36.7 percent went on to secondary education (39.9 percent among boys), leaving Cambodia languishing at 132nd place.
This is, in part, explained once again by rigid societal expectations placed upon many girls to accept demanding familial roles from a young age. But while advancing gender parity is a social and moral imperative, it remains an economic one, too. Poor educational attainment among Cambodian women is reflected in their low representation among skilled and high-ranking jobs, including senior officials and managers in business (31.8 percent), lawyers (20 percent), judges (14 percent), elected commune officials (20 percent) and parliamentarians (20 percent).
With the looming threat of Cambodia losing access to the European Union’s Everything but Arms initiative, which grants full duty-free and quota-free access to the EU single market for all products except arms and armaments, as well as the changes brought on by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the social and economic marginalization of 50 percent of the population needs urgent addressing.
So come March 31, with women free to attend the return fixture against Iran at Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium, Cambodia, as well as Southeast Asia as a whole, should use the occasion to reflect on its gender disparities that regrettably persist.
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Alastair McCready is a senior journalist and a contributing editor at The Phnom Penh Post. This article is part of the latest series of the Asian Editors Circle, a weekly commentary by Asia News Network editors, published by members of the regional media group. The ANN is an alliance of 24 news media titles across the region.
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