Opinion: Behind the Market Stall, Women Toil Under Inequality

6 min read
Vendors at Oudong market in 2019. (Tran Techseng/VOD)
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The air in the market hall is damp and filled with the sounds of bargaining, motorcycles rumbling past, and the smartphones of vendors, who bridge the wait between customers with reels of social media videos. The sellers wait on little plastic chairs. Others make their way through the market’s aisles carrying baskets with fruits, clothes and household items for sale.

Amid the bustling, my colleague and friend Sreynang and I have maneuvered our way through O’Russei Market during our lunch break. We stop at a nail studio: a reprieve and a comfort — but also an experience of the women-led, informal economy that is the backbone of Cambodian society.

“The money earned from one day of working is just enough to buy food, but nothing else,” says Sreynouch, 25, who has a young son. Sreynouch and her mother, Somrath, 45, polish and paint our nails.

“Work hard and fight for yourself. Don’t expect anything from others. In the end you are all on your own,”’ says Somrath, who has worked in the nail studio for 30 years.

Their studio is surrounded by other nail studios and little hair salons, all operated by women. And all of them are part of Cambodia’s informal economy.

More Work, Less Protection

According to 2019 statistics from the International Labour Organization, 77% of Cambodian workers are employed in the informal sector. Preparing affordable meals in street-food restaurants, selling groceries, providing repair services and haircuts, helping with planting and harvesting: Informal workers truly are the backbone of the Cambodian economy and society.

In urban areas, female participation in informal employment exceeds male employment. With a view to the rapid urbanization in the country, this is noteworthy. According to numbers from the ILO and a press statement by Oxfam Cambodia, informally employed women in Cambodia tend to work for longer hours than men. This is due to women taking on more household chores, a result of traditional gender norms. Informally employed women in Cambodia thus contribute a significant share to the country’s flourishing economy.

Yet their hourly wage is on average 19% less than men, based on estimates by the UNDP. Women also tend to engage in occupations that are more vulnerable to economic shocks such as the entertainment and hospitality sector, which struggled during the Covid-19 pandemic. They face more difficulty receiving social security, education, financial services, and health insurance compared to men in the informal sector.

For example, female workers in Cambodia’s informal economy cannot access maternal health services or parental leave, and thereby face health risks during pregnancies and childbearing. They are not compensated for the income lost due to motherhood.

Furthermore, many girls are put at a disadvantage in their education by being taken out of school early in order to engage in informal labor, both inside and outside of their homes.

Or, as 22-year-old O’Russei clothes-seller Pad Sochita, the mother of two little daughters, puts it: “Women think more critically and work more than men because they also raise the children. But men are free. They can go out, drink, have a second girlfriend or a second wife. Women cannot do those things because when they do, they get judged.”

The dedication of women and girls to balance their lives between domestic work and informal employment is taken for granted in Cambodia. But when it comes to meeting their own needs, be it with a view to finishing their education, receiving female health care or social security provisions, patriarchal society remains blind — and so do policymakers.

Women in Care Work

Pad Sochita looks younger than 22, but there is also a maturity to her that I, as a German student in my 20s, rarely observe among my peers. She is calm, contemplative, and nearly shy. Offering us a seat on a colorful plastic chair in front of a small clothing shop in O’Russei, Sochita tells Nang and me about her dream of having her own shop at home, so that she can combine running a business with taking care of her family. Accommodating work and providing for a family at the same time — it is an issue concerning many women from all walks of life.

However, especially in developing countries like Cambodia, early childhood education, care programs and pension schemes are hard to access for people in the informal sector. The less accessible public services are, the more families rely on unpaid family workers. This is why, for many women in Cambodia’s informal economy, the work day does not end when they come home. Instead, they often have to take care of young children and sick or elderly family members.

Engaging in care around the home — that is, unpaid domestic work — sometimes even prevents women from entering the labor market in the first place and, consequently, inhibits their opportunities to earn a living and gain a certain extent of financial independence. The alternative most commonly available to them is poorly-paid informal employment, often in unfair and precarious conditions.

In these scenarios, it is women who have to overcompensate for the absence of public services with their time and effort, without monetary compensation for their contributions within the household. Female informal workers are not only the backbone of the Cambodian economy, but also of their families — the invisible hand that holds them together.

Policy and Kindness

Only pushing for the formalization of the informal economy does not tend to the roots of those problems. Unpaid care work, the gender pay gap, limited perspectives in terms of education, shortcomings in female health care and in reproductive rights, harassment and disrespect — these challenges also apply to women in formal employment.

Caretaking and informal work — some of the weight of this double burden can be lifted off the shoulders of Cambodian women by extending public services. According to a study by Southeary You, founder of Next Women Generation, this means improved access to preschooling for all Cambodian children, extending the coverage of pension schemes to informal workers, and providing care programs for children and elderly people among Cambodia’s informal workers. These measures turn some of the duties traditionally assigned to women into a public concern.

Beyond those potential reforms, fruit-seller Srey Neang, 40, offers us her suggestion: to treat each other with kindness, recognition and respect. She welcomes Nang and me into her market stall with a warm smile as we buy a bag filled with jackfruit and mangoes.

Heading back to the office, the complexities of the policy challenges take a back seat in my mind for a time. I can’t help thinking that Srey Neang’s suggestion is exactly the change that every one of us can bring about.

Additional reporting by Oeurn Sreynang

Veronika Gruber works as a junior researcher at Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Cambodia and pursues a master’s degree in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna.

Oeurn Sreynang is a law student at the Royal University of Law and Economics in Phnom Penh. She also works as a junior researcher at Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Cambodia.

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