Cambodian Women Face ‘Double Burden’ of Care Work: Report

4 min read
Chan Mach, 43, cooks while wearing a mask at her roadside restaurant in Takeo province in late March 2020. (Ouch Sony/VOD)
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Cambodian women shoulder a disproportionate amount of the work at home and mental stress related to performing it, even though they and their partners believe the work should be shared more equally, according to a new report.

The report, released Friday by the feminist nonprofit Klahaan, explores Cambodian perceptions of “unpaid care work” — meaning domestic tasks such as chores and childrearing — along with the mental load of planning, managing and worrying about those tasks.

Data was collected from 250 survey participants and 60 interviewees, including heterosexual women, men and LGBTQ+ couples, in Phnom Penh and rural Kampong Chhanng province.

Women overwhelmingly said that they perform more housework compared to men and serve as “project managers” of the domestic sphere, contributing to insomnia, stress and a general sense that there is always too much to do.

“Mental load affects [mental well-being] indirectly,” one respondent told the researchers. “I’m sure it does. I find it very stressful. But I have to tell myself it is my responsibility.”

Extra Work

For decades, research has shown that women around the world take on undue proportions of “care work” that is little-recognized and prevents them from entering and staying in the labor force.

In Cambodia, the burden of care work remains despite high rates of female employment, Klahaan’s report shows: While roughly 80% of women are part- or full-time employed outside the home, more than 90% of women said they felt women do more housework than men.

Men perceived the division of labor to be more equal, with just 78% saying that women did more. About three-quarters of all respondents agreed that care work is viewed as less important than paid jobs.

Still, because the majority of women work outside the home, domestic tasks create a “double burden” in which they’re under pressure to perform at their jobs and then work more at home.

Participants described being unable to pursue English classes or master’s degrees because of the need to be at home with their kids and manage the home on the weekends or during the week, “systematically [preventing them] from progressing into more senior roles.”

“The men do not care about this: if they want to do it, they will do it,” one woman said of career development.

Mental load

In addition to the work itself, women reported bearing the mental burden of organizing and managing domestic tasks, while men tend to view themselves as “helpers.”

Just 33% of survey respondents felt that men and women share the “mental load” of work equally. One respondent described how she and her husband both work at a construction site, but when they come home, she cooks the food while he rests – but they have to go back to work before she can rest.

Another described a feeling of constantly being under pressure to complete more work during the day and then again as soon as she returns home: “It’s very exhausting… After finishing work, we need to come back to do the housework. I feel like there are a hundred tasks for me to complete.”

In interviews, many female respondents also spoke of managing household finances, the researchers wrote. Although it ostensibly allows for more independence, organizing and handling the household finances actually amounts to yet another form of unpaid labor.

“If the man does it, he doesn’t know where to start because he has never done it before,” one male participant said.

Wanting Better Outcomes

Although men perceived the burden of care work to be more equal than women, some responses revealed a bright spot: Many men, and especially younger men, expressed wanting the division of labor to change, researchers wrote.

“Both husband and wife are responsible to manage together – either business or housework. Even… dishwashing and cooking, the husband can help do it… We shouldn’t let the work fall on one person, it’s not good,” one younger male participant said.

Survey data showed that less than 5% of total respondents felt that women should manage household these tasks without help, while almost two-thirds said that men should take on more cognitive labor. About 80% agreed that men and women should share those tasks equally.

Both men and women pointed to the deeply embedded general roles in Cambodian society – as well as the perception that women are inherently better at housework or not capable of more – as reasons that the division of labor persists. But they also said they’d like to see it shift.

“Nowadays, I think the responsibility should be shared between members of the family,” one older participant said. “Division can sometimes turn into a heated discussion within the family when the division is based on our traditional mindset and one party is fully responsible for the housework alone.”

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