In Cambodia, women’s work is the bedrock of a well-functioning economy that is growing at 7 percent per annum. Unfortunately, the economy does not seem to be working for women. Liza Ordonez writes we need a human economy where men and women have the same opportunities and access to resources and get equal pay for equal work.
Sophoan is a domestic worker mother of 3. She recently gave birth to a healthy third child. Sophoan is the main income earner in her family, her husband works as a moto-dop driver but he can only contribute $50 per month.
Domestic work is physically straining, so towards the end of her pregnancy Sophoan was under unbearable pain, causing potential harm to her baby. She stopped working at 8 months under advice from her mother. But, without Sophoan’s income she was unable to pay for essential food, housing or medical costs.
Sophoan decided to move in with her mother, also a domestic worker, and ask for her mother’s support. Aware that Sophoan was unable to work and had no savings, her mother took a loan from her employer to pay for Sophoan birth costs at a hospital in Phnom Penh. Shortly before the delivery her mother got injured at work and was unable to work for a few months while she recovered.
After Sophoan delivered her baby, she had to care for her injured mother, a new born child, and pay the loan. With these demands Sophoan felt pressure to go back to work prematurely, not knowing how or who would care for her newborn child and her mother. But the longer she stayed out of work, the more the entire family fell into poverty.
Stories like Sophoan’s happen every day in Cambodia. Like them, 77 percent of women informal workers, who clean our homes, care for our children, grow and sell our food, make our clothes, or build our houses, find themselves at high vulnerability at a time when they should be taking care of their newborn babies and enjoying a unique time in their lives. Pregnancy for many women becomes a burden, despite all the joy that it may bring. This should not be happening in a country that continues to grow economically at a rapid rate of 7 percent. Workers, especially women, should be able to access essential services so they can give birth safely, and their incomes should be protected so that pregnancy doesn’t push them into poverty.
These stories highlight a growing gap between the rich and the poor in Cambodia, and unfortunately this gap is undermining the many efforts to fight poverty. Monitoring this trend is an important step towards identifying the causes of inequality early on, allowing policy makers to address it on time. Cambodia is not a unique case. Across the world inequality has been rising, especially in developed countries. This trend strains our economies and fuels injustice in our world.
Even though we all suffer when public services are neglected, women and girls pay the highest price because usually it is girls who are pulled out of school first when the money isn’t available to pay school fees, or when young kids or sick relatives need care. This means that from a young age girl have less education than boys, resulting in lower skills to find decent jobs. Because of their care responsibilities, women have less time to find better jobs and earn higher incomes.
The Cambodian government has taken important steps towards providing healthcare to more people via the introduction of the Heath Equity Card (HEC) and the National Social Security Fund (NSSF). These two systems are important steps towards expanding coverage of healthcare, but more can be done. More investment is needed to increase coverage and improve the quality.
Investing in the care economy is another option and simply makes sense. A recent study by UNDP found that that one dollar of public money invested in the care sector could create 2.5 times as many jobs as a dollar invested in the construction industry. Recognizing unpaid care work can lift many people out of poverty, create jobs and reduce gender inequalities.
Oxfam believes we can achieve a human economy where men and women have the same opportunities and access to resources and get equal pay for equal work. An economy where everyone receives the care they need throughout their lifetime. In a human economy, governments prioritise closing the gaps between the rich and the poor, between women and men, or between social classes. In a human economy, the story of Sophoan would no longer be the reality of the majority but an unacceptable exception.
A human economy does not have to be a dream, it can be a reality if governments take active steps to understand the trends in inequality early on so we can re-think policies to ensure they serve everyone equally.
Liza Ordonez is coordinator of social protection policy for Oxfam in Cambodia