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FEATURE STORY March 1, 2021

Leading the Way in Cambodia: Sopheap Ros


For International Women’s Day 2021, we’re sitting down with women leaders across East Asia and the Pacific who are working towards a more equal future in a COVID-19 world. Leading the non-governmental organization, ‘Gender and Development for Cambodia’ Sopheap Ros, has worked to promote gender inequality since mid-1990s after her first study on domestic violence in the country. Fighting for gender equality is a tough job, however Sopheap says improvements can be made if we invest more in young women.

How did you begin work on empowering women in leadership and good governance?

In 1995, I conducted research on domestic violence in Cambodia and it was the first time this had ever been done before in the country. I stayed with communities for six months and spoke to many women in my target group. Then I got to understand the situation of women in the abusive families. Before, I asked myself why women and children stayed with abusive husbands or fathers. There are many factors, including social norms, and the inequality of men and women.

I learnt how women and girls were treated unfairly, especially when accessing public services such as school, health and administrative services. We need a good governance in the country which can give women the voice to demand for services. It doesn’t mean that their rights and voice are just listed on paper but put into real practice. If we neglect to address these issues, girls and women will continue to suffer from abusive husbands or fathers and the development of our society will be impacted.

How was your work and impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

The pandemic has had a huge impact on our work to promote gender equality, to stop violence and discrimination against women, girls and vulnerable groups. Since the pandemic, we started our work virtually, but it is not as effective as face to face. The nature of our work is in person, we go house by house to meet women. Because of COVID-19, we cancelled some activities that we had planned.

Do you think the pandemic has presented new challenges for women in Cambodia?

Yes. Some workplaces were closed, and some workers returned home. Schools were closed and students learned online, so the families spent more money on their children such as internet fees or to buy equipement. This is tough when their incomes have dropped. It also impacts learning because their parents have no skills in teaching.

From my own observation, I see the level of stress goes up, sometimes leading to conflict and violence in families. These challenges fall on women and girls. The level of debt is also high, and women is responsible to pay the loan.

This year’s theme is “Women in Leadership”- is there a female leader that inspires you? Why do they inspire you?

For me, I don’t look at the famous or high level for female leaders. I am inspired by female leaders at the grassroots level. They have done a lot of great things for their communities. Young women, between the age of 18 and 20s are another inspiration.  We need to pay more attention and more support and to open space for them to exercise their talent.

Look at women who work at entertainment clubs; they encounter aggressive clients, but they dare to work and to stand there to make income to support their families. They devote so much. They do far much better than I do.

Why we need women in leadership?

The number of women in leadership positions is quite small. If they are in the leadership position, they can bring the voice of women into decisions. For example, at the community meeting if there is no woman sitting at the table, issues such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, and so on, may not be discussed.  Female victims dare not to complaint or to raise their issues in front of male community leaders or police. But they can share their issues with female leaders or officers. I think that if the proportion of women can be at least 50 percent in the leadership positions, then any development plans can be fully completed.

Do you have any advice for women in Cambodia?

Here, I would like to encourage the government to continue their good work and pay more attention to women and girls. They should do more on promoting gender equality and give opportunity for women and girls to access education and public services. In some areas, they haven’t had access to services, for example, health service. In some health centers, they do not have enough medical equipment and medicine as well as skilled health providers. I would also request courts to pay more attention to complaints filed by women and give them justice so they can enjoy their rights.

What are your hopes and plans for the future?

I want to focus on young women, but there is a gap between urban and rural. Urban young women can access to information easily, while the rural girls can’t. The same with education. Many rural girls cannot go beyond grade 9. Usually, they leave school at grade 7 or 8 and start working to support the families. These young women have great potential and they are the human resources for our society. Whenever, they have better education, they can improve themselves, including taking good care of their children, access to better jobs, and they can be a backbone for the country economic development. When they are educated, they can be policy makers or a great politician. Then the benefit of the country will be fairly distributed among man and women.


**The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group and its employees.