When Phuong* saw the translators and I getting off the tuk-tuk, she quickly fixed her hair and walked towards us brandishing the warmest of smiles. Welcoming us with the few words of Khmer she knew, she then invited us to sit in front of her house. It was a typically hot day in Phnom Penh, and all the families of the district were waiting for their usual customers. We were in one of the suburban areas of the capital, far from the expat life of the centre, where the air is thicker and the dust longer in settling. In the neighbouring garment factories thousands of women were waiting for their lunch break to buy rice and perhaps a new dress for the upcoming Chinese New Year. “This month my business is very good,” Phuong told us. “Khmer people are buying more clothes as we approach the festivity.”
Factory workers represent the main source of revenue for Phuong. Every day at twelve o’clock, the workers make their way to the stalls. They all wear coloured bandanas as required by the factory code of conduct. It’s a symbol of identification; a label that says what they do and hides who they are. According to Human Rights Watch, there are approximately 700,000 workers in Cambodia’s garment factories. In a sector that in 2016 still discriminates women and denies them their basic labour rights, abuses are the order of the day. Yet, women stick to the cycle and with the small quantity of money they earn, they gather every day at lunch time to buy sticky rice and plan their outfits for the upcoming festivities.
There are many shops located around the factory; one of those is Phuong’s. She runs it right in front of her house door near the sugar cane juice stalls. Dresses, t-shirts and jumpsuits hang everywhere, mixing their colours with the orange of the dust and the smell of fried noodles.
Phuong is an ethnic Vietnamese woman, one of thousands who arrived in Cambodia in the 1990s in search of better job opportunities. Her story sounds fortunate when compared with those of the ethnic Vietnamese who have lived in Cambodia for generations and are still deprived of citizenship, trapped in poverty and lack access to education and other social services.
Although having gone through very difficult times too, Phuong has recently been recognised the status of refugee and she can now invest in her business and sustain her family. As a matter of fact, she is the only source of income for her family of three. Her husband obtained political asylum from Cambodia for advocating for a democratic Vietnam in 1996 and will never be able to return to his country of origin. Having taken action against the Vietnamese government, he would be persecuted and perhaps sentenced to death. Currently unemployed, the man is not the one who manages the money at home. “My husband doesn’t like to take risks. When I came up with the idea to expand my business, he didn’t agree. But then I convinced him.”
Phuong is a very ambitious woman and now that she has received a grant from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), she is planning to renovate her shop, buy a different range of new products and engage with more customers. It took her 26 years to get to this point – to be given the right to dream, plan and live in her host country and finally call it home.
Cambodia is a major point of origin, destination and transit for irregular migrants. Its porous borders, poverty and geographic location have also created the optimum conditions for human trafficking. According to IOM, recent trends have shown that Cambodian women are subject to coercive violence and forced marriage abroad, whilst men are abused and exploited in the regional fishing industry. Cambodia is still considered one of the world’s poorest countries presenting deep-rooted corruption rates; therefore, it is not surprising that the Kingdom needs to foster the effective enforcement of its legal institutional frameworks on this matter.
Cambodia is one of the signatories of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, but has not enacted proper legislation to bring it to life. The Convention was only one of the many international treaties that Cambodia signed when it was under the United Nations (UN) transitional authority. In the 1990s, the UN set the foundations for a modern democratic state, giving Cambodia a constitution and treaties that guarantees human rights and privileges to its people. They also organised democratic elections, in which 90% of Cambodians turned out to vote. However, the UN plans might have been too ambitious. After the Institution left the country and the new elected government took office, all the principles stated in the constitution have failed to be enforced.
Refugees and labour issues are just two of the infinite burdens that afflict the Kingdom and its people. Corruption and illiteracy remain major barriers to human and economic development. The employment gap is becoming more and more vulnerable as the population grows. Such a system has a profound effect on women who are positioned at the bottom of the social ladder. Gender inequality is a persistent issue that is deeply rooted in society. Women have fewer opportunities than men to pursue an education. They have lower salaries. They are considerably under-represented in the political sphere. And yet, surprisingly, Cambodia celebrates the 8th of March, International Women’s day, as a national holiday. All the businesses close down and Cambodians get to spend a day at home with their family. The government, however, seems not to care about the hundreds of women who are victims of human trafficking, or about those who entered the sex market and now work at shady karaokes on night shifts. The government is doing nothing to fill the vulnerable employment gap women are subject to and abuses in the workplace still go unnoticed.
Phuong is making it because she got extra support. She got the IOM grant, under the recommendation of an NGO that has been following her case for years. She has a supportive and present husband who helps her with her business and her child. She also had the opportunity to attend a business program for women entrepreneurs in Cambodia. What about the others? What about the Cambodian women that cannot lean on their relatives? Financial security and family support are key ingredients to success and happiness. The Cambodian government is denying women of their rights, and depriving their own country of a fundamental social and economic force. They say under-privileged women are hidden in society because they are commonly located in rural and suburban areas, but – here comes the question – are they really invisible or are we just pretending not to see them?
*This name has been changed to protect the privacy of the individual involved. The pseudonym Phuong has been used in this circumstance for its particular meaning: direction, way.
Featured image shows a garment factory in Phnom Penh. Photo courtesy of Michela Magni.