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Cambodia's Digital Economy: Women in Tech

Increasing the number of girls taking STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects is a global concern, as participant rate is much lower than their boy counterparts. The reasons for this are overwhelming to do with stereotypical gender roles, with girls receiving less encouragement to take these subjects in school or being put off from joining male-dominated industries.

In ASEAN countries, such as Cambodia, women and girls already face barriers to entry in every industry, with lower participation rates across the board. For many young girls, continuing their education is not a viable option for them and therefore they don’t develop the necessary skills to join the labor market. They remain an untapped resource in fostering a stronger economy for their country.

In this blogs previous Influential Cambodian Women article for International Women’s Day this year, many of the women featured had utilized technology in their achievements. In the last few years, the amount of women who found success in tech startups has noticeably increased, with many utilizing technology to be able to set up their own business. This was in a large variety of different fields from healthcare to agriculture.

The potentially bright future for Cambodia that could result from a digital economy, is also a promising pathway for achieving more gender parity in a country that needs to include all members of society in achieving that goal.

Digital Literacy Rates

Cambodia separates itself from other ASEAN nations by having the youngest average age of the population. Decades of Civil War mean that the median age is just 25 years old. This shows in the countries Facebook activity, with over 11 million active accounts. It is worth noting that this itself is very gendered, 2/3 of those with a Facebook account are men in those findings.

Overall though, Cambodia can be said to have a low digital literacy rate in the general population. UNESCO defines digital literacy as the ability to browse, search, filter, and evaluate digital content. Many schools do not have internet access or the funds for expensive electricity in order to teach digital literacy in schools. In the adult population there is also a need for an increase in these skills to keep up with what is required by a digital economy, especially in the critical ability to evaluate online information and browsing safely.

When it comes to e-commerce and online sales, Cambodia is much less active compared to its neighbor Thailand. An important factor is that very few have access to online banking, Cambodia is very much still a cash society. This hinders the ability for business to take their services online and increase revenues and means most companies must rely on local sales.

A high percentage of the population has access to mobile phones, even in the context of the world stage. The penetration rate (number of mobile connections to a service divided by population) in Cambodia is 124%, considered some of the highest in the world. Many use mobile money accounts for business transactions and typically it is their preferred way to access the internet, as they don’t have a personal computer.

Rural vs. Urban areas

In rural areas, there are large disparities in people’s access to internet due to the speed and price of what is available. In 2018, only 40% of the population had access to the internet. Electricity is expensive in Cambodia, which means it is out of reach for many who live in rural communities. In order to really create a thriving digital economy, these important issues need to be addressed.

A digital economy stands to be an enormous benefit for young girls living in rural areas, giving them opportunities to gain valuable skills through e-learning. Many do not continue education because of the cost involved, because of the long distance they live from the closest school or because it is unsafe for them to travel to school. Many of these issues could be solved by more e-learning programs, such as we have at Women Going Beyond ®.

Most of the tech start up scene to date has been localized in Phnom Penh, which remains something of a hub. This is where the majority of the population live, so some of the reasons for this are understandable. However, there is potential for there to be an even greater increase in disparity between the quality of life for those in urban areas versus those in rural areas, if care is not taken to be inclusive during the creation of a digital economy.

Effects of the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for accessibility to digital platforms, especially for developing nations, as key resource to spread information and stay connected. While the Cambodian govern made efforts to spread information through TV and radio, the low digital literacy rates and poor internet access impeded efforts to get reliable, accurate information out to the general population.

Further, it has drastically impacted the way in which people are able to work; the garment industry, tourism and construction are all major industries that have been affected. The ability to export goods was severely threatened by lockdowns during the last year. The pandemic has the potential to reverse much of the work done so far to bring people out of poverty.

Some have stated that the pandemic has also helped usher in what has been termed the Industrial Revolution 4.0, and ASEAN 4.0, which represents a new chapter in human development. This is about more than just technology driven change; it represents a unique opportunity to find new ways to allow the most number of people to advance themselves, their careers and ultimately benefit both their families and communities, and inclusive of all income groups and nations.

Cambodia’s Digital Future

In 2019, the Cambodian government committed to boosting digital economy in the Kingdom by hosting their first Digital Cambodia conference. This attracted both locals and interest from other ASEAN countries, and created a buzz of excitement for the country’s enthusiastic young tech entrepreneurs.

A commitment has been made to foster a largely digital economy by 2023, though many have estimated it will likely take a decade or more to create a truly digital economy in the the Kingdom. Progress, when it comes, will be a really important step in putting Cambodia more in line with its successful Asian neighbors, for example Singapore. The hope is that this will allow it to become an upper-middle income country by 2030.

What will be absolutely essential, is that countries like Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam who already have thriving digital economies, use this knowledge and power to help some of the poorer Asian nations. There is a strong need for a digital framework in the law that governs privacy, hacking and legislation for e-commerce, that could be modeled on neighboring countries.

The 2021-2035 digital policy framework currently being drafted by the Cambodian government targets developing digital infrastructure, fostering digital trust and confidence, and promoting digital businesses. It is an exciting time for developing countries and a real opportunity to kick start their economies and create better futures for their citizens.

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