Modern-day Cambodia is the descendant of the ancient Khmer Empire, a powerful empire that stretched over much of South East Asia between the 8th Century and 15th century. Remnants of this period, such as the hauntingly beautiful Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, draw more than two million tourists to Cambodia annually and stand proudly amongst some of the most historically significant sites in the world. Lonely Planet describes Angkor Wat as the eighth wonder of the world.
Despite its proud history, Cambodia fell into a dark period as it was drawn into conflict from the Vietnam War and then fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Between this time and 1978, leader Pol Pot attempted to turn Cambodia into a purely Communist country, sending millions out into the countryside and deserting Cambodia’s once energetic cities. Intellectuals and city-dwellers bore the brunt of Pol Pot’s brutal regime initially, but disease, starvation and Khmer Rouge cruelty saw the death toll rise to an estimated two million, over a quarter of the population.
Sites such as Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields stand as stark reminders of Cambodia’s tragic past, but the ongoing effect on Cambodia as a whole cannot be understated. In a population of 15 million, only 3.8% of Cambodians are over the age of 65, making the general population incredibly young. It also means the memories of the Khmer Rouge are alive and strong in Cambodia, even today.
Cambodia had to build themselves up again, and it hasn’t been easy. Cambodia remains the poorest ASEAN country by GNI per capita (World Bank, 2016). While its rapid economic growth saw it reach lower-middle income status in 2015, 35% of Cambodians people still live below the international poverty line measured at US$1.90 per person per day (UNDP, 2018). 40% of Cambodia’s rural population live in multi-dimensional poverty, while 45% of Cambodians living in poverty are 19 years old or younger (UNDP, 2018). Over 8.1 million Cambodians are near-poor, meaning if they lost 30 cents of income per day they will be thrust back into the poverty bracket. Also, the unequal distribution of economic gains means many Cambodians still have poor levels of health, low levels of education, skills and employment, and struggle to access essential services.
Domestic violence is also a significant issue for many Cambodian women, with 21% of women reporting they have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence (UN Women, 2015). 1 in 4 Cambodians over the age of 15 are illiterate. 36% of Cambodian children are involved in child labour. 40% of children in primary school do not progress beyond grade five. Only 35% of females at the appropriate age enrol in secondary school. With poverty and gender issues come other issues such as lack of hygiene, poor health, lack of family planning, domestic violence, poor school attendance, high school dropout rates, etc.