Each day while her two younger brothers study in school, 13-year-old Kien Kin sits under an umbrella on the Chroy Changvar selling cakes and hog plums.
She, too, would like to go to school, but her mother had a choice to make—either educate her oldest daughter or earn enough to feed the family.
So Kien Kin, who cannot read or write even her name, now is responsible for ensuring her family’s survival.
Kien Kin is one of thousands of Cambodian women who have been forced to trade education for work, according to the new Human Development Report by the UN Development Program and the Ministry of Planning.
The report highlights many of the disadvantages faced by Cambodian women. Compared with men, they are poorer and get paid one-third less for comparable work. Like Kien Kin, they are forced to leave school earlier, thus have a much lower literacy rate. And there are other concerns, such as reproductive health problems and lack of representation in government.
Chum Mom, a 36-year-old mother of six, also was faced with the choice of educating her daughter or supporting her family.
“My daughter cannot read or write,” said Chum Mom, herself unable to write or read more than a few words. “I could not afford to send her to school because I needed her help to make money.”
According to the development report, 79 percent of Cambodian men are literate, compared with only 55 percent of women.
Although girls and boys have similar enrollment rates when they begin school, the number of girls enrolled is cut in half by the time they reach the age of 15.
The report gives several possible reasons for the high dropout rate, including the cost, poor access to schools and a perception that female education is not as important.
Women also face discrimination in the labor market.
Although women make up 53 percent of the labor force—the highest rate in Southeast Asia—they earn from 30 percent to 40 percent less than men.
Although this is common in both developing and developed countries, acting Planning Minister Suy Sem said, the discrimination is still of great concern and the government in the future should set minimum wages. Currently, there are minimum wages only for the garment industry.
The report also details health and nutrition. A Cambodian woman has a greater chance of dying because of pregnancy than any other woman in Asia and the Pacific, according to the report, with a rate of almost 500 deaths for every 100,000 live births. The report points out that Cambodia only spends 5 percent of its budget on health care, lower even than Bangladesh.
The report noted that considerable progress has been made in drafting and passing legislation against trafficking and to protect women’s rights, such as access to safe abortion. But law enforcement has been spotty because of the weak legal system.
Suy Sem said the next five-year development plan by the government should include policies and programs to help women and girls. “We know…the cost to Cambodia of neglecting women and girls is too large to be ignored,” he said.