Providing Food Assistance and Helping Women in Cambodia

Feature | 27 February 2012

A project in Cambodia is helping some of the country's poorest women and families put food on the table, and is building better emergency response systems.

BATTAMBANG, Cambodia - Khen Yorn has struggled her entire life to keep food on the table. The 31-year-old small-scale farmer in northern Cambodia supports herself and her older sister, Khen Kea, who lost a leg to a landmine as a child. But in the last few years, Khen Yorn's battle to sustain her family seemed nearly impossible.

With food prices rising steadily, she could barely feed herself and her sister with the income from their small farm. She had nothing to invest back into her land.

But in March 2010 came a breakthrough. She was hired as a laborer to help build a road in front of her farm. She received about $100 for her work, digging and planting grass along the roadside near her house. Though the amount might seem small, it had a huge impact on the lives of her and her sister.

With the money, she was able to get medical care for her sister, and she was also able to buy a pig. Each of the pig's litters produces 10 to 12 piglets that she sells for $50 each. Life is still very difficult for her and her sister, but now they feel they have a fighting chance.

"My sister and I needed this help," she says. "We could barely feed ourselves. Now we are making enough to put some aside every month."

Supporting the vulnerable

Khen Yorn and her sister benefited from the ADB-supported Emergency Food Assistance Project, which was approved in 2008 and included a $17.5 million grant, an additional $12.2 million loan provided at concessional rates, and a $1.5 million technical assistance grant. The Government of Cambodia also provided $5.08 million for the project.

The project was designed to assist about 500,000 people, or 89,000 households, living in the seven provinces along the Tonle Sap Basin. This was done by providing social safety nets, production support and capacity building for emergency response systems. Those assisted included groups that were vulnerable to the food price increases and economic crises of 2008 and 2009 - particularly households headed by women.

Since implementation began in October 2008, the project has provided 68,000 vulnerable families - or more than 340,000 people - with rice. It also implemented a school meals program that benefited more than 65,000 primary students, including 31,555 girls, during the school year 2009/2010 in four provinces. To maintain attendance, the project gave scholarships to more than 10,000 primary and secondary students for the school year 2009/2010 and 2010/2011. More than 52.6% of scholarship recipients were female students.

In addition, the project employed more than 58,500 households in a program that provided food and money in return for work on community projects. This included work rehabilitating small irrigation canals (over 7,750 hectares of irrigated areas) and village roads (over 540 kilometers). It also provided quality seed and fertilizer to over 70,000 small farmers at subsidized prices, increasing yields by 40% to 47%.

To ensure access to food by vulnerable groups during economic crises or when natural disasters strike, the project helps the government strengthen its emergency response capacity by establishing the Emergency Response Food Reserve System, and improving the monitoring of food security and nutrition.

Improving women's lot

Gender is an important consideration in the project implementation, notes Nao Ikemoto, a senior environment specialist with ADB. "The village road building projects, such as the one Khen Yorn worked on, have included criteria by which households headed by women - or women in general - can fully participate in the projects," says Ikemoto. "These village roads are very important for girls and women in rural areas."

"Women who had to walk through knee deep water, during the rainy season, to reach health centers, can now reach them through safer and quicker means," says Ikemoto. "Because of the improved road condition, people are now sending their kids to schools and the kids can get home faster and safer─before dark. These village roads contribute directly to an increase in education for kids."

Han Ney, 42, a farmer who supports three children with her husband, was given the opportunity to work on a narrow road near her home. The work that she and her husband did on the road earned them $180 in 3 weeks - almost equivalent to their annual income from farming. With the extra income, they bought school materials, farming supplies, seed, chickens, and a pig.

They are proud of the road that they helped build. It not only helps their entire community but they benefit from it directly. They are able to get their farm products to market quicker and cheaper.

Han Ney's husband, Lek Rith, says that because the project encouraged the hiring of women to work on the road - a job traditionally done by men - it has changed attitudes in their community.

"My wife worked on the project just as I did," he says. "Now I sometimes help with the housework and take care of the cooking because she is helping to earn income."