A Window Into the Inequality of Contemporary Cambodia

A country in which inequity in nearly every aspect of life leaves little hope for those who are not a part of, or do not have access to, the ruling CPP network and its system of privilege; where the Bar Association only admits 35 to 70 lawyers a year although hundreds graduate annually; where tens of thousands of workers are stranded in Phnom Penh, unable to secure the most menial job, and have no prospects if they were to return to their provinces.

This is the portrait of modern Cambodia laid bare in a recently released book, “The Handbook of Contemporary Cambodia,” published by Routledge earlier this year.

The book opens a window into the realities of life for those living in the country today.

“Cambodia is a place of paradoxes, of contradictions, of inconsistencies, ambiguities and incongruities,” says the introduction, written by the book’s two editors, Katherine Brickell, of the University of London, and Simon Springer, of the University of Victoria in Canada.

More than 50 international and Cambodian researchers shine a spotlight on the justice system, microcredit, rural livelihoods and urban conflicts such as forced relocations.

The book also delves into the health care system and violence against women as well as ethnic identities, religion and moral order.

“[T]his volume will make very clear that calamity and misfortune continue to the present,” the editors point out.

As for the future, they write: “Nothing is assured. Will Cambodia be once more consumed in the darkness of an apocalypse wrought with inequalities, or will there be a dawn of something new…?”

Below, an excerpt from one of the articles, “Street Vending in Phnom Penh: Flourishing but Invisible” by Kyoko Kusakabe, head of the department of development & sustainability at the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand, looks at the unique world of street vendors.

Many street vendors are migrants who came to Phnom Penh in the late 1990s or 2000s, on the wave of an economic boom.

For the predominantly female vendors, the hours are long, profit margins are low and competition for customers is stiff.


Street Vending in Phnom Penh: Flourishing but Invisible

The long working hours of street vendors lead to considerable difficulty in childcare. Many street vendors do not have any support system to look after their children, either because they are single parents or because their husbands are also out of the house all day.

It is difficult to bring children to work, since there is no space for them to play in the very congested market.

The environment in the market or street is not sanitary enough for children either. Further, vendors are not able to concentrate on their business if their children are around. So, [outdoor] market vendors leave their children at home.

Note that many street vendors are poor and live in lower-income housing areas. Security in these areas can be bad and there have been cases of abduction and human trafficking. Agnello and Moller (2004)1 noted that a respondent said:

I am always at the market, but I am always worried about the security of my family at home. I am afraid of burglars, of people burning down my shelter, killing my husband, of my children, and so forth.*

One vendor said that her child missed her, and she walked all the way to the market to find her. Since the market was far from home, the child went missing.

After three years the vendor spotted her child at the market, whereupon she discovered that she had been adopted and raised by another family.

Another vendor said that since she was afraid that the children might stray, she left them at home and locked the house from outside.

There was a fire in the community and the children died because they could not escape. Clearly, lack of childcare facilities is a life or death matter for many street vendors.

Therefore, it is understandable that one of the first requests from vendors when they organized the vendors association was related to healthcare and childcare services, in addition to credit.

Although street vendors are the main breadwinners in many of the households and are confident entrepreneurs, their income does not seem to improve their position within the household or the community.

One street vendor was so afraid of her husband that at 5 p.m., she packed her wares to go back home, fearing that her husband would be angry with her if she did not reach home before him.

This is partly because of their lower social position and also because they do not earn enough to exercise control over their income. Almost all of their income disappears in providing their daily food consumption.

Some vendors remit regularly to their relatives in the provinces, and their relatives send them rice and other food items. When vendors visit their relatives in the provinces, they need to give gifts, so they do not go back home frequently.

In one case in Orussei market, one street vendor had to attend a ceremony back home. She was collecting donations to make merit for the ceremony from her fellow vendors. This would allow her to collect a lump sum, to help her save face when she went back. However, Kusakabe et al. (2001) 2 suggested that not many vendors think they can go back to the province if their business is not good or if they get sick; they would rather stay on in Phnom Penh. They do not view their relatives back home as a safety net to depend on when in trouble.

Relatives in the province depend on me. But I cannot depend on them. It is not because they are poor. I cannot leave my children with them also.**

Though street vendors’ income is important for direct family members as well as relatives, they seem unable to translate that contribution into a stronger safety net for times of trouble. Street vending is not a temporary or secondary occupation for women, but it is a vulnerable occupation without any social protection.

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* Quote in Kusakabe, K. 2006. On the borders of legality: A review of studies on street vending in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

** Soybean drink seller in Daum Kor mar- ket, in Kusakabe, K., C. Monnyrath, C. Sopheap, and T. C. Chham. 2001. Social capital of women micro-vendors in Phnom Penh (Cambodia) markets: A study of vendors’ association.

1 Agnello, F. and J. Moller. 2004. Vendors’ purses: Women micro entrepreneurs and their business needs.

2 Kusakabe et al. (2001). As above.

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