The Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia (1993) provides a legal framework for the rights of young people, including the right to vote and the right to stand as a candidate for election (§34). The macro-level policy framework for youth development in Cambodia includes the Rectangular Strategy III (2014-2018) and the National Strategic Development Plan (NSDP) adopted in 2011. The Industrial Development Policy, (ii) the National Employment Policy, and (iii) the Labor Migration Policy also directly relates to youth.
In 2011, the Cambodian government developed the National Policy on Youth Development (NPYD). The policy calls for a holistic approach across all concerned sectors, “to work together to improve youth’s capacity and provide them with opportunity to develop their potential in education, employment, health and decision making, and participation in development of their families, communities, nation and the world”. The Strategy focuses on twelve strategic areas of action, including education, training and capacity-building, provision of health service, entrepreneurship, youth participation, volunteerism, gender and drugs use. In the framework of the NYDP, the related ministries all work together to support vulnerable youth, namely the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MEYS), the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSAVY), the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training (MLVT), the Ministry of Health (MOH) as well as the Ministry of Women's Affairs (MoWA). As a way to operationalise the NYDP, the National Youth Development Council (NYDC) was established in 2014 to play a coordinating role and implement the NYDP. The draft of the National Youth Action Plan (NYAP) was initiated in 2015. However, the Action Plan still falls short when it comes to budgeting and the designed mechanism is not yet operational. NYDP/NYAP needs more systematic mainstreaming into the mandate and the budget process of the different ministries as well as better integration at the sub-national level in order to be translated into actions.
Although Cambodia has made impressive progress in the last few decades in the fight against HIV/AIDS and in promoting effective family planning practices, health is still an urgent issue facing youth today. Social and cultural transformations brought about new risks for the health of Cambodia’s youth. The major challenges are sexual and reproductive health (SRH) issues, including STIs and HIV/AIDS (prevalence of 0.2 percent among youth aged 15-24), unwanted pregnancy, pregnancy-related illnesses, unsafe abortion, mental health problems, accidents and violence. There is still a large knowledge-behaviour gap regarding condom use for HIV prevention, while only 1 percent of young females reported having used condom at last intercourse in 2011.
Not all youth are affected in the same way by health risks. Health knowledge and core health indicators show strong disparities across the youth population, based on ethnicity, geographical location, gender, and marital and socio-economic status. For instance, according to CDHS data, male youth aged 15-29 were less exposed to STIs (0.7 percent) than their female counterparts (5 percent) in 2014. In the same way, the adolescent birth rate was three times higher in rural than in urban areas in 2014.
Youth are also exposed to negative lifestyle factors associated with serious diseases such as tobacco use (7.3 percent of youth aged 15-24) and alcohol consumption (14.2 percent of youth aged 11-18). The level of alcohol consumption among Cambodians aged 15-19 is among the highest in ASEAN, while about 42 percent of males aged 15 to 19 are current drinkers (27 percent for the females). Illicit drug use is also an issue: according to the National Authority for Combating drugs, 60 percent of drug users were aged between 18 and 25 in 2010.
On the way towards universal primary education, Cambodia has made good progress over the past fifteen years. In 2014, the net enrolment rate in primary school was 98.4 percent, the primary school completion rate was 89.9 percent and the literacy rate of people aged 15-24 years was 91 percent. However, many young people drop out of school and access to secondary education shows high inequalities across gender, location and socio-economic groups, with a total secondary net enrolment rate of only 27.7 percent in 2014. The drop-out rate gets high when it comes to secondary education, reaching 21 percent in lower secondary in 2014. Although rural and poorest youth had an improved opportunity to enter higher grades, their rate of school enrolment is still low compared with urban and richest youth. Even though higher education remains far beyond the reach of most rural and female youth, the gross enrolment rate in tertiary education among youth aged between 18 and 22 improved significantly over the last 10 years from 4.9 to 20 percent, including for the poorest households (from 0.2 to 2.6 percent) and for women (3.3 to 17.4 percent).
Both access and quality of education pose crucial issues and indicate a need for more relevant school curricula, sufficiently trained teachers, and more resources for school improvements. In this context, the Cambodian government established the Education Strategic Plan (2014-2018) to ensure equitable access for all to education services, enhance the quality and relevance of learning and ensure effective leadership and management of education staff at all levels. According to the World Bank, Cambodia spent 2.6 percent of its GDP in 2010 on education provision. Increased focus on access to secondary schools, school retention, and vocational training can provide Cambodia’s youth with a greater prospect for their future.
As youth aged 15-29 year-old comprise around 43 percent of the working age population in Cambodia, the labour force is still characterised by low education and skills. Decent work is difficult to find for young people, due to the dominance of the informal sector in the labour market. Although youth informal employment has declined over the last decade, 41 percent of youth were employed informally in 2014, mainly in agriculture. In addition, almost three-fourths of employed youth are underemployed, with a higher proportion of poor youth.
Despite much higher growth rates in modern urban industries like garment manufacturing, tourism or construction sector, more than two-thirds of the young people are still working in the agriculture sector. Nevertheless, this pattern is changing: increased labour demand in urban sectors, lack of employment opportunities in rural areas and poor returns from agricultural production accelerate rural-to-urban labour migration. Thus, youth employment tends to shift from agriculture to service and industry. As a result, the 300,000 young Cambodians, who are entering the labour market annually now face higher unemployment rates in urban than in rural areas. Similarly, the trend in wage employment is upward and it now makes up of 59 percent of total youth employment, most youth in waged work being employed in industry (53 percent).
Youth find it hard to integrate into the labour market due to limited education and training, the lack of job-search abilities and of proper links between education and the labour market. Due to the mismatch between education outcomes and labour needs and the inability of the economy to absorb the growing labour force, Cambodia is likely to suffer from high youth unemployment in the near future. Although youth in neither employment nor education or training (NEET) fell from 8.8 percent in 2004 to 6.4 percent in 2014, many youth are still economically inactive because of not having social capital, health problems or poor qualifications. Youth in agricultural households or in the poorest quintiles make up the largest share of the NEET youth, while females were around 83 percent of the NEET youth in 2014. In this context, increased attention towards skills development, decent work opportunities and sustainable growth can enable a suitable labour market environment for youth, and reduce their vulnerability to hazardous working conditions.
Youth are becoming more informed and engaged in civic and political activities, especially through the rapid penetration of social media. In 2015, about 40 percent of Cambodians had access to the internet and/or Facebook. Cambodia’s youth participates actively in community-oriented activities. Many youth-focused NGOs provide programmes and services related to education, civic engagement and citizenship: as of late 2014, there were 35 active and registered youth NGOs working in Cambodia, the most prominent one being the Union of Youth Federation of Cambodia (UYFC). Additionally, youth wings of the main political parties foster participation through media campaigns, lobbying and demonstrations.
However, the inclusiveness of such participation is still limited. Besides expressing their voices through social media, a majority of youth, especially those living in rural areas and migrant workers in other countries, are still left out from the initiatives organised by political parties and NGOs. Lack of trust in communities, political agendas and the justice system is still a problem for their participation in development activities. Furthermore, due to the legacy of war, youth are cautious about participating in political activities. Civic engagement and political involvement are widely associated with risks, which leads to a lack of support and encouragement from parents and communities. Thus, youth voices are hardly reflected in the country’s policies and programmes, neither at the local nor at the national level. The response from the government is still partial, fragmented and politicised. The main barrier towards meaningful participation is a lack of recognition of youth, caused by an age and knowledge hierarchy within the society. However, because youth are a large constituency, politicians try to formulate policies that support their needs: the most important instance of youth participation in public sphere was when they cast their vote in 2013 election, which sent a strong message to the ruling party that they cannot be ignored.
Cambodia’s youth is particularly exposed to vulnerabilities, primarily in the context of poverty, physical and mental weaknesses, violence and abuse, and migration. In terms of poverty and social exclusion, 36 percent of young Cambodians live below the poverty line. Being exposed to a wide range of physical and mental health problems, lack of access to basic needs, isolation and dangers like sexual exploitation, street children, orphans and young migrants are among the most vulnerable groups. Rural-to-urban and cross-border migration in search of economic opportunities is common among young Cambodians. Overall, the young population is estimated to experience more violence and abuse than any other age group, especially in terms of domestic and gender-based violence. Female youth are the most vulnerable to violence: according to CDHS, 29 percent of the interviewed females aged 15-29 were exposed to physical or sexual violence by their intimate partner in 2014.
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