Women in development

Dr. Tan Reasmey, researcher and lecturer in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Food Technology at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia. Photo taken from the​ USAID​ Asia​ on August 18, 2016. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Relevant national policy frameworks

From the perspective of the government as a whole, the Cambodian government continues to promote gender equality in the country through various initiatives including the Rectangular Strategy Phase IV 2019-2023, which expands vocational education and training programs to increase women’s entrepreneurship together with the promotion of gender equality in social protection and nutrition. Furthermore, the promotion of gender equality in the emerging context of digital transformation in response to global uncertainties, environmental sustainability, and climate change is highlighted in the Pentagonal Strategy-Phase I. Other government initiatives include (1) the National Policy Framework on Digital Economy and Society 2021-2035, which focuses on women’s participation in the digital sector, alongside Cambodia Digital Government Policy 2022-2035 which aims at “reducing the gender gap in digital skills”, (2) the National Financial Inclusion Strategy 2019-2025 to increase a gender‐responsive environment that promotes gender equality and empowerment of women in terms of financial inclusion, and (3) the Five-Year Strategic Plan on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment 2019-20231 by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA) to promote gender responsiveness and inclusion in the national policy frameworks, strategic plans, and national programs related to the economic sector.2

Although there have been efforts made, Cambodia’s score of 0.461 on the UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index (GII) suggests that more action is needed to attain greater gender equality in development.3


According to the World Bank, the adult literacy rate refers to “the percentage of people ages 15 and above who can both read and write with understanding a short simple statement about their everyday life”. As of 2021, Cambodia’s female adult literacy rate is about 79.8%, while the male adult literacy rate is about 88.4%. Comparatively, the female adult literacy rate in East Asia & Pacific is approximately 94.5%.4

The Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports of Cambodia reported the net enrolment rate at the primary level for female students to be approximately 95.9% and approximately 95.5% for male students, for the academic year 2022-2023. The completion rate at primary is about 89.4% for female students and about 85.3% for male students. At the primary level, the dropout rate for female students, however, is higher than for male students, at 9.5% and 5.5%, respectively.5 Assigned gender roles and traditions, early marriage, forced and domestic labor, human trafficking, and hygiene are among some of the main barriers separating girls from getting and continuing their education.6

In the lower secondary level, female enrolment and completion rates are about 85.9% and 60.4%, respectively. For male students, their enrolment and completion rates are about 81.4% and 51%, respectively. Enrolment at the upper secondary level dropped for both male and female students, at 46.1% for female students, and 36.5% for male students.7

However, if compared to a previous dropout rate from 2020 to 2021, there is a difference that male students dropped out more than female students—approximately 16.9 % of female students at the lower secondary level dropped out of school, while the rate of male dropouts is over 19%.8 That is because adolescent boys at the ages of 14-18 years old are in more demand by employers in the labor market especially amongst heavy and unskilled jobs that require intensive traveling and night shifts, according to a representative of UNESCO Cambodia.9

Although female students' enrolment and completion rates at primary, lower, and upper secondary are higher than male students, there is an opposite trend in higher education. For the school year 2021-2022, out of the 206, 893 students in higher education, only about 97, 235 or 46% are female, most of whom pursue Bachelor’s Degrees. For Master’s Degrees or Doctorate Degrees, the number of female students significantly drops. For 2021-2022, out of 9,483 students pursuing a Master’s Degree, only 2,718 or 28.6% are female. The gap is even larger for Doctorate Degree students as only about 116 out of 1,213 or 9.5% are female.10


Women are a major contributor to Cambodia’s economy. According to the World Bank, almost half of the total labor force in the country is made up of women, at approximately 47.1% of the total labor force in 2022.11 The female labor force participation rate in 2021 was reported around 48.4% of the country's total labor force participation rate, according to the 2021 final report of Cambodia's socio-economic survey.12

According to the National Institute of Statistics, the employment rate in 2021 is about 79% for women and 89% for men, a 10% difference between men and women. In the same year, the unemployment rate was about 0.9% for men and about 1.2% for women, while the average unemployment rate in 2021 was about 1%.13 In 2023, Cambodia’s unemployment rate is projected to trend around 2% and 0.90% in 2024, according to the projections of the econometric models.14

The National Institute of Statistics of Cambodia defines own account worker or self-employed as “persons who currently work in past seven days to contribute to their households and who operate their enterprise (e.g., farmers cultivating their land, small shop keeper or small restaurants) without payment or income of any kind”. According to the Cambodia Socio-Economic Survey 2021, employment status for women includes paid employee (40.6%), employer (0.2%), own account worker or self-employed (38.4%), and unpaid family worker (20.9%). About 905,000 women are unpaid family workers, which is almost twice as large as the number of men in the same employment status, at 449,000.15

As of 2021, about 38.3% of the total female labor force work in the agriculture sector, about 37.5% in the service sector, and about 24.3% in the industry sector. Out of about 4,339,000 women employed in 2021, less than 1% of employed women, or about 27,000, work in managerial positions, in contrast to the 1.3% of their male counterparts, about 59,000. About 1,444,000 women are employed as “skilled agricultural, forestry and fishery workers,” 1,117,000 as “service and sales workers,” and 921,000 as “craft and related workers”.16

A majority of the women working in the industrial sector are in garment work, as garment work is one of the most important industries and a key engine of growth for Cambodia's economy.17 Before the pandemic, the garment sector employs approximately 900,000 workers, of which 80% are women.18


According to a 2021 report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), gender wage gaps remain large between men and women in Cambodia, across industries and occupations. A study in 2019 found that Cambodian women earn about 80% of men’s wages while owning fewer assets and facing more barriers to better-paying work opportunities. The wage gap becomes larger among higher-paying jobs, where women are at a disadvantage. The average gender wage gap in the country is approximately 16%, with the major contributing factor to the gender wage gap attributed to gender discrimination.19

Key Challenges

In addition to the gender wage gap for the equivalent work, women also face other pressing challenges including vulnerability to trafficking in person, a large skill gap, a lack of entrepreneurship support, and a lack of representation in decision-making positions, among others.

According to the UN Women study titled “The gendered dynamics of trafficking in persons across Cambodia, Myanmar, and Thailand”, Cambodia was identified as a country of origin, destination, and transit for trafficked individuals. Thailand is a major destination country for trafficked victims from Cambodia. Every year, it is estimated that approximately 55,000 Cambodian migrants are smuggled into Thailand, and between 4% and 23% of those smuggled could be victims of trafficking. The study further highlights that “responsibilities placed on women to meet the care needs of their families are being compounded by increased expectation they will provide income. This, combined with limited opportunities due to local gendered divides in labour markets, leads many poor women and girls to seek to migrate, heightening their risk of being trafficked”.20

To combat trafficking in person, Cambodia has ratified international and regional legislation and treaties, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Labour Organization’s Forced Labour Conventions 29 and 105, the ILO Convention’s Worst Forms of Child Labour, and the ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, among others.21,22

However, Cambodian women are still facing some challenges in terms of victim protection and persecution, according to findings from a recent study23 saying that “Cambodia’s courts and justice actors are not sufficiently gender-sensitive”. In addition, “forced surrogacy” remains an entrenched issue for Cambodian women who are victims of trafficking given that both labour and criminal laws are still ineffective in addressing this issue. This case of women in human trafficking also echoes another evidence-based report by a local watchdog finding that Cambodian “women continue to face challenges in accessing justice and women defendants receive little respect for their fair trial rights. In addition, the Cambodian justice system, in which women are highly underrepresented, lacks gender sensitivity and hinders both women victims and defendants from accessing adequate justice. In 2020, only 15% of judges, 14% of prosecutors, and 22% of lawyers were women in Cambodia”.24

Nationally, the 2008 Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation is the primary domestic law that oversees the issue of trafficking in persons.25 The Cambodian government also created the National Committee for Counter Trafficking (NCCT) in 2014 as the national mechanism to promote the implementation of laws, and national and international policies related to combating human trafficking in persons.26

As mentioned above, young women in Cambodia are less likely to pursue their education due to various reasons, making them lack the necessary skills to find better-paid jobs and employment in the formal sector. In response to this, the government has been prioritizing vocational education via a variety of initiatives to narrow the skill gap in the workforce.27

The lack of support for women in becoming entrepreneurs remains a barrier to women's empowerment. Cambodia Women Entrepreneurs Association (CWEA) identified three common top challenges, including lack of access to education, business skills training, and information; access to finance; and access to the market. With universities and training institutions geared towards young, single women, there is little accommodation for women entrepreneurs who have to juggle their business and household obligations. The lack of access to further their knowledge and business skills has made it difficult for women-owned businesses to expand and make a profit.28 In response, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs established the Women’s Entrepreneurship Development Centre (WEDC) and initiated the first National Cambodian Women Entrepreneurs’ Network (CamWEN) in 2020 to support women entrepreneurs in Cambodia.29

Although Cambodia has signed and ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) since 1992, women’s participation in parliament remains small, compared to men.30 Challenges for women in leadership positions could be attributed to social, institutional, and political factors that create barriers and perpetuate gender-based discrimination against women.

To promote gender equality and encourage women’s participation in decision-making processes, the government has developed the Neary Rattanak V, a five-year strategic plan (2019-2023) for gender equality and the empowerment of women in Cambodia. Part of the plan’s strategies is to improve gender balance by increasing the proportion of women in civil service/political positions and providing leadership and capacity-building training for women.31

Related to Women in development


  1. 1. Ministry of Women’s Affairs, “Neary Rattanak V៖ Five Year Strategic Plan For Strengthening Gender Mainstreaming and Women’s Empowerment,” 2021, accessed August 2023.
  2. 2. UN Women, “Cambodia Progress Report,” 2022, accessed August 2023.
  3. 3. UNDP, “Gender Inequality Index,” Human Development Reports, United Nations, accessed August 2023.
  4. 4. World Bank, “Cambodia,” World Bank Gender Data Portal, accessed August 2023.
  5. 5. Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports, “Education Congress,” 2023, accessed August 2023.
  6. 6. Eugenie, “Why Are Girls Not in School?,” Children of the Mekong, 2021, accessed August 2023.
  7. 7. Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports, “Education Congress,” 2023, accessed August 2023.
  8. 8. Ibid.
  9. 9. Ngay Nai, “Boys More at Risk of Dropping out of School at Secondary Levels,” CamboJa,​ 2022, accessed August 2023.
  10. 10. Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports, “Education Congress,2023, accessed August 2023.
  11. 11. World Bank, “Labor Force, Female,” World Bank Open Data, accessed August 2023.
  12. 12. National Institute of Statistics, “Final Report of Cambodia Socio-Economic Survey 2021,” 2021, accessed August 2023.
  13. 13. Ibid.
  14. 14. Jha, Prakash, “Joblessness in Cambodia to Stay around 2% in 2023,” Khmer Times, 17 October 2022, accessed August 2023.
  15. 15. National Institute of Statistics, “Final Report of Cambodia Socio-Economic Survey 2021,” 2021, accessed August 2023.
  16. 16. Ibid.
  17. 17. Ibid.
  18. 18. UNDP, “Information Note #7: UN Cambodia’s Support to Garment Workers in COVID-19 Response,” 2021, accessed August 2023.
  19. 19. UNDP, “Gender Wage Gap in Cambodia,” 2021, accessed August 2023.
  20. 20. Abigail Hunt, Maria Quattri, Briana Mawby, Georgia Plank, Shan-non Phillip, Sokchar Mom, Khin Zar Naing, and Sanda Thant, “The Gendered Dynamics of Trafficking in Persons across Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand,” UN Women, 2020, accessed August 2023.
  21. 21. Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, “Instrument of Approval,” 2016, accessed August 2023.
  22. 22. Abigail Hunt, Maria Quattri, Briana Mawby, Georgia Plank, Shan-non Phillip, Sokchar Mom, Khin Zar Naing, and Sanda Thant, “The Gendered Dynamics of Trafficking in Persons across Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand,” UN Women, 2020, accessed August 2023.
  23. 23. Rapid Asia, “Trafficking Victim Protection in ASEAN,” 25 April 2023, accessed August 2023.
  24. 24. CCHR, “CCHR | Cambodian Center for Human Rights,” 2022, accessed August 2023.
  25. 25. Rapid Asia, “Trafficking Victim Protection in ASEAN – Rapid Asia Co., Ltd.,” 25 April 2023, accessed August 2023.
  26. 26. NCCT, “National Committee for Counter Trafficking,” accessed August 2023.
  27. 27. ODC, “Vocational Education | Open Development Cambodia (ODC),” 13 January 2022, accessed August 2023.
  28. 28. CWEA Cambodia, “White Paper: Enhancing Access to Education and Information for Women Entrepreneurs in Cambodia,” CWEA Cambodia, 2020, accessed August 2023.
  29. 29. UN Women, “Cambodia Progress Report,” 2022, accessed August 2023, accessed August 2023.
  30. 30. Chanlinda Mith, Sotheary Meach, Lakhena Chan, Rotvatey Sovan, Khemarin Khiev, and Soveasna Suon, “The Challenges of Women in Leadership: Key Findings from Gender Statistics Analysis,” 2020, accessed August 2023.
  31. 31. Ministry of Women’s Affairs, “Neary Rattanak V: Five Year Strategic Plan For Strengthening Gender Mainstreaming and Women’s Empowerment,” 2021, accessed August 2023.
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