Women Learn to Earn in Rural Cambodia

Feature | 1 March 2010

For many women across Cambodia, every day is a struggle for income. But at new women's development centers, they are learning how to make more money.

Leang Dey, Cambodia - Thav Heat's home looks idyllic. Her stilted, wooden house looks out onto verdant rice paddies. Oxen lumber past, heavily laden carts trundling behind as they make their way down the tree-lined, red dirt road.

But life is not as rosy as it may seem, Thav Heat says. "It can be very tough to feed my four children, especially in the rainy season." As a widow, the onus is on her to make sure nobody in the family goes hungry and to put the children through school.

Women across Cambodia face a similar challenge - with husbands absent because of death, divorce, or migration for work. But at new women's development centers, women like Thav Heat are learning how to earn more money, making life in Cambodia's countryside that much sweeter.

Ing Kantha Phavi, the minister for Women's Affairs, cuts a no-nonsense figure as she walks around her Phnom Penh office, explaining how many women in Cambodia find it hard to make the money they need.

Poor education and a lack of skills are the obvious obstacles, while obligations at home may prevent women from traveling to find work. They also face a struggle to access information that may help them set up a small business or get the training that would improve their employment prospects.

Without the contribution of female Cambodians, Ing Kantha Phavi says, the economy would be struggling. "The informal sector is very important," says the minister. "It provides 60% of [gross domestic product] GDP - and employs more than 80% of working women."

"Women are also important in the garment sector," Ing Kantha Phavi says. "They need to be taken seriously."

In terms of jobs for women, there is little outside of "blue jeans and grass"; that is, the production lines at the garment factories in and around Phnom Penh or else agriculture. Domestic work in private households is one other option.

But Ing Kantha Phavi's ministry has been working on a number of projects to create more opportunities, among them, women's development centers.

These facilities - overseen by the ministry, and supported by partners including ADB and the International Labour Organization - train women in life skills and marketable skills, like entrepreneurship classes. They also offer easy access to microcredit.

Women's development centers enhance existing skills to help clients improve their livelihoods.

The opening of a women's development center in the village of Leang Dey has brought Thav Heat a new outlook on her life. At the center, she not learned only new mat-weaving skills, but also how to produce bags and purses that can be sold in the souvenir shops of Siem Reap, the town.

On this rainy weekday afternoon, the center is an atmosphere of quiet concentration. Women sew bags together, their treadle-powered machines making barely a sound. Even if there were a power cut, they would be able to carry on working. Another group measures material for bag linings. Children watch as their mothers use rulers to straighten out the straw, readying it for weaving.

"People used to spend up to 6 days making one mat - and then they would sell it for $5. Lots of labor, to make very little money," says Uch Sarom, ADB management and training advisor at the center. "Now they can make $3 or $4 dollars a day depending on how fast they work. We are teaching them marketing and design at the same time, and also giving general business training"

Her new skills mean that Thav Heat can stay close to home while earning the extra money her family needs. Even the raw material for the bags she makes, a grass known locally as ronchek, grows right on her doorstep.

"It has made a big difference," she says. "My family's standard of living will be much better than before. And it is good to have a steady job close to home, because I have my young children and elderly mother to look after. If they need me, I can go to help immediately."

Thav Heat hopes her daughter will be able to join in the work when she is old enough, instead of moving away to find a job. The women's development center has made that a possibility. If the program's encouraging early results continue, it will have performed an important service: giving Cambodian women the tools to make a sustainable living.