Interview with Sandra Bernklau, Representative of UNFPA Cambodia

This week, Senior Communications Officer Brian Badzmierowski spoke with Sandra Bernklau, Representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Cambodia, who joined EuroCham in celebrating International Women's Day by speaking on a panel at our Afternoon Talk on Gender Equality on 6 March. Sandra is an expert in the field of gender equality, wth extensive experience working in the sector in Fiji and the Pacific. 

EuroCham: You arrived in Cambodia August last year to take the role of Representative of  the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Cambodia, after working in Fiji and the Pacific on similar issues for many years. What inspired you to come to Cambodia and what are some issues that need to be addressed?

Sandra: Cambodia is fascinating for so many reasons and my family and I were ready excited to move here. There are a lot of progressive policies here – including in the area that UNFPA works on sexual reproductive health and rights. However gender equality still has some barriers , so I take that as a challenge. After working in gender equality for decades, I’m still very passionate about it and I believe it’s holding countries back. Gender equality is not about getting women ahead; gender inequality holds everyone back. In every place in the world that I have worked, it’s often that harmful social norms can contribute to gender inequality. Gender inequality exists throughout the world, but there are unique challenges in each country that are ingrained in a society’s value system and culture.

In Cambodia, you’ve got very specific roles for men and women. Until recently, these were even taught in schools, and it helped to really engrain gender norms – some positive and some not so positive.  Changing the harmful social norms is a long term approach that requires having many  conversations unpacking how we can change the harmful social norms, and keep the good ones that are so beneficial to Cambodian culture. It’s necessary to work with local leaders, the media, the government, religious and faith-based leaders, we need to work at all levels to help solve the issue and I’m really looking forward to having those conversations here in Cambodia.

We’ve seen progress in access to reproductive health services and family planning services throughout the country. The government is also starting to fully implement Comprehensive Sexuality  education (CSE)  in its grade 5-12 curriculum. This curriculum covers reproductive health and rights – including gender discrimination, gender-based violence and issues such as menstrual hygiene. Having spaces to discuss these issues are really key and UNFPA is working with the government to put in place school health rooms where issues such as menstrual hygiene can be discussed and supported.  Of course other issues include having access to clean water and  washroom facilities  and all of these will help girls receive the support and advice they need to feel comfortable and succeed and to remain in school.

There are still a number of other issues to address, including violence against women and girls, financial and digital exclusion, and unequal burden of care – with women doing far more domestic and unpaid work.

EuroCham: What is the private sector’s role in helping solve this issue?

Sandra: While we need all sectors to work together – government, civil society, private sector – sometimes we cannot wait for long term change like for example for laws to change. So there is a lot that can be done by the private sector to progress gender equality in the workplace. A great place to start is with the UN Womens Empowerment Principles (or WEPs - , which outline specific actions for businesses to implement and monitor how to advance gender equality in  their businesses.

There’s always pushback for gender equality in business, but it makes financial sense to invest in gender equality as well. It’s definitely an investment that pays off in the long run.

According to McKinsey Global Institute, advancing gender equality in the workplace could add $12 trillion to the global economy by 2025. Fifty percent of the population is women, and they are full of energy and capacity that is not currently being harnessed. Women need to be on boards of directors and included in leadership. The McKinsey study also found that companies with greater diversity perform 48 percent better than other companies. The bottom line is gender equality reaps rewards for everybody. It’s more than a moral argument in the private sector, it’s an economic argument as well.

Some of the changes that need to take place can be done without too much investment, including allowing for paternity leave, creating policies for sexual harassment, having training on harassment and exploitation, and allowing for flexible work schedules,

EuroCham: After working in this industry for four decades in different societies, what is a major takeaway you’ve learned about people’s perceptions of the issue?

Sandra: One thing I’ve noticed is that people tend to view gender equality as only women’s empowerment – as if this will only benefit women. However, gender equality benefits men and women equally. Businesses are more profitable and families are more peaceful and harmonious. Sharing the raising of children, for example, is beneficial to both men and women.

Social norms and expectations affect both men and women, and men also should not be pressured to live in any certain way. We are all diverse and should be free to utilize our unique abilities to the fullest.

EuroCham: How has a shift to remote work since the pandemic affected gender equality in the workplace?

Sandra: Remote work proved to business that their businesses will not fail if they don’t have employees come into the office from 9-5 every day. It showed that flexibility does work, and this is something a lot of businesses are trialing, working alternate hours, switching to four days a week, all of these are good for gender equality for men and women.

And right now, that flexibility benefits women and families. For example, being able to attend a meeting online to be able to stay at home with a sick child is important. It’s also important to understand that women may need a flexible schedule when going through life events such as menopause that affect women only. At the same time, men should also be allowed flexibility in their schedules as well, including paternity leave when raising a child.

EuroCham: At a meeting last year, you commended the Royal Government of Cambodia's commitment to achieving what is called the "Three Zeros by 2030". Could you briefly explain this - what are the 3 Zeros and how are they being supported in Cambodia?

Sandra: UNFPA's global strategy focuses on what we call the "Three Zeros".  The First Zero is about reducing preventable maternal mortality to zero - meaning that every time a woman delivers a baby, it is a safe delivery supported by trained health care providers. The second zero is having zero unmet need for family planning - so that means everyone has access to family planning information, support, services and commodities. The third Zero is about eliminating gender-based violence.  Gender Based violence includes many forms of violence including domestic violence, sexual harassment in the workplace and in the community, early or forced marriage, trafficking and even technology facilitated violence - or online violence. 

The Royal Government of Cambodia is very committed to reaching its Cambodia Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and has set clear targets in each of the 3 Zero's. The country has seen great progress in reducing maternal mortality, increasing access to family planning and SRH services and support, and reducing gender-based violence.  While more work needs to be done in all of these areas to retain the gains made, there is commitment to continue to achieve all of the three Zero results.


Annual Platinum Partners

Annual Gold Partners

Founding Chambers & National Chapters