Opinion: We Celebrate Mother’s Day, but Do Little to Empower Them

Mother with child (Pixabay)
(Pixabay)

My parents went through a divorce and I was abandoned when I was just 6. I know very little about the love between parents and son. But I learnt a lot about the challenges, socially and financially, my grandmother went through in order to raise me. Those include unpaid household work, stigma against women, poor social services and the absence of government support — you name it. And 30 years later, I still see women, particularly working moms, struggling to fight for equal treatment to what men have enjoyed.

Women in Cambodia accounted for 48.3 percent of the total labor force in 2020. Many of them are working moms who are struggling to raise their children. In fact, raising kids these days is socially and financially challenging for many parents.

One of my female colleagues is a mother of two sons. Every week she needs to rush to drop off and pick up her 7-year-old son from a private school, and later comes back to the office for two hours of unpaid overtime work. Her youngest son, 1 year and a half, is with her mom at her hometown, 90 km away from her workplace. And every weekend, she needs to rush to her hometown so that she can spend a night together as a family.

I am heartbroken to witness such a distant relationship between a working mom and her son. I sometimes ask myself how she can handle such a workload and psychological distress at the same time. And I feel guilty that I can do nothing more than be a supportive colleague.

One should not be surprised why many working moms have turned to baby formula. A Unicef report in 2010 stated that about 74 percent of Cambodia’s infants younger than 6 months were breastfed, but the figure dropped to a middling 65 percent by 2014, which is almost below the recommendations of the World Health Organization. If this continues to decline, it will certainly pose some implications to the short- and long-term physical and cognitive development of infants. Are we ready to handle the consequences? I guess not.

Extra Hours With Little Pay

Some NGOs are so loud about women’s rights and gender equality, but have made little effort to empower and safeguard the rights of their female staff members.

As an experienced aid worker, I have witnessed my female colleagues work overtime with little or without pay. Some need to work on weekends and public holidays at the expense of their commitment to their family. And yet there is little recognition or incentive to acknowledge their dedication compared to what their male colleagues have enjoyed.

And there are few among my female colleagues who are fortunate to attend capacity-building and social events without worrying about workload and overtime work. The rest can barely take sick or annual leave. This is the untold story of many working moms and women in the NGO sector.

Women do unpaid work more than men do. A report by consultants McKinsey notes that global unpaid work carried out by women is worth about $10 trillion a year. Though there is no statistical evidence to confirm the cost of unpaid work among Cambodia women, a U.N. report from this year notes that since the Covid-19 outbreak, 20 percent of women have allocated more time in unpaid household work compared to just 10 per cent among men, showing that the pandemic added more burdens to women’s already higher unpaid household workload.

The unpaid work and gender pay gap in Cambodia is deteriorating and needs to be addressed. It has been long ignoring issues in government organizations, the private sector, and within non-governmental organizations. A research study, “Globalisation and the Gender Earnings Gap: Evidence From Sri Lanka and Cambodia,” finds that the gender pay gap in Cambodia grew from 11.8 per cent in 1996 to 32.1 per cent in 2011. Although a recent report by the U.N. Development Program notes a slight drop, women are still paid 19 per cent less than their male colleagues for doing the same job. And it is estimated that 48 percent of Cambodian working moms earn less than their partners, compared to just 16 percent who earn more. These suggest that we have achieved a little or nothing in terms of addressing the gender pay gap in the country.

Mother-Friendly Working Environments

We will never be able to achieve political, economic, and social empowerment of women if we just talk about it. In fact, it’s been too much talk.

We need to include them in our conversations, and by that I do not mean we need to host consultation workshops at lavish hotels just for the sake of a participatory approach. I mean we need to create a supportive working environment, incentives for working parents, and ensure that women are equally paid compared to their male colleagues. And that they are given the same opportunity to grow and upgrade their skills without the need to work on weekends and public holidays. These are everyone’s responsibility, and it rests on all stakeholders.

Workplaces should consider providing child care, or incentives to working parents or parents-to-be. This investment will not only build a strong sense of belonging and recognition, but will certainly increase productivity and job satisfaction among employees. It is a win-win strategy for employers and employees, thus influencing the culture of work-life balance and attracting talented future workforces.

Male employees should be given longer paternity leave to take care of their newborn babies and to allow their partner and wife to return to work or attend social networking events or training.

Training on gender inclusiveness and occupational safety should receive investment in order to ensure a safe and supportive working environment for women. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and NGOs working in this sector should consider developing a standardized training manual and provide incentives in the form of an annual publication of the performance of each workplace, before imposing a regulatory requirement. This will drive stronger participation and gender equity in workplaces across the country.

It starts from each and every one of us.

Let’s make Mother’s Day a meaningful celebration for all working moms and moms-to-be out there!

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