A recent interview in the Phnom Penh Post with the Cambodian Minister of Women’s Affairs reveals the embattled position of anyone championing women’s rights and gender inequality in the country.

Are your male Cabinet colleagues interested in women’s affairs?
Should I lie to you? I would be lying if I said they are all interested. They are not. But they are improving. In the past, they did not understand the meaning of gender equality, not even the prime minister. That’s changed and he is now our best champion, and others realise what must be done. But I wish I could say the same for some ministers who still don’t get it.

Despite the fact that more than half the population are women (52 per cent), men overwhelmingly dominate political forums, nationally, provincially and locally.

Women are more than half the population, but you’re the only one running a ministry.
Yes, we are under-represented and we must do something about it. The number of women in decision-making positions has improved slightly. There are more female secretaries of state and deputy secretaries. We have more women elected at the commune level. And we have convinced the prime minister that we need more at the provincial and district level. So we’re moving forward. It’s important to remember that gender equality is a government policy, not just a policy of this ministry, because women are the backbone of Cambodia’s social and economic well-being.

Indeed, women in Cambodia indubitably hold the economic keys to the country’s future development, fulfilling crucial roles in off-farm labour in the garment sector and as petty traders and small business owners. Yet their significant economic contributions are largely viewed as an extension of their household duties to provide for their family. Political power has not necessarily followed from economic power. Rather Cambodian women are figuratively harnessed by their male counterparts to work for the good of the country, community and family. With the recent global economic crisis and the spectre of factory closings and lay-offs (there have been 20,000 lay offs this year so far) the question asked by the Phnom Penh Post as to whether a job in a textile factory is better than prostitution seems somewhat asinine.

For a vulnerable woman, is a job in a textile factory better than prostitution?
Of course it is. Under our Constitution, it is forbidden to sell your body – at least, in theory. Remember, our main challenge is poverty. And what can poor rural women with little access to education and other primary resources do to survive if they are not educated? Not much. Domestic work. Or being exploited for their bodies. So while prostitution is illegal, if they do it voluntarily to survive, we close our eyes. We accept it. But we do fight against the sexual exploitation of women who are forced to become sex workers against their wishes.

There is a well established link between the two sectors of garment manufacturing and prostitution. When factories close, prostitution increases. Of course working in a factory is better than having sex for money, but when the family needs feeding, medical care and assistance, women of Cambodia find a way to provide, even if it means self-sacrifice. Cambodia closes its eyes because as an undiversified, least developed economy, the country sells what few assets it has.