Dil Chantha used to spend at least two hours per day walking from her home village of Trapeang Prey in Cambodia’s Beanteay Meanchey Province to the nearest community pond to fetch clean water for her family’s use. During the dry season, she—along with other women and girls—had to walk farther to reach a water source, increasing her workload and putting her personal safety at risk in navigating slippery paths with a heavy load. Given her work as a farmer, this left Dil little time for almost anything else.
In Cambodia, the responsibility for a household’s water, sanitation, and hygiene typically rests with women. Mothers are responsible for children’s hygiene and access to safe sanitation. Many have limited decision-making power within the family or community due to gender disparities in roles, education, and economic opportunities. Gender inequality is also a major issue at the national government level.
The Asian Development Bank’s (ADB’s) Second Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Sector Project (RWSSP2) and its Additional Financing (RWSSP2AF), implemented from 2009 to 2020, paved the way for major changes in Dil’s village. It also benefitted other villages across six provinces around Tonle Sap Lake, where many of Cambodia’s poorest people live.
Funding in action
For this project, ADB funded the sector loan and grants, which included contributions from the Government of Cambodia, the Water Financing Partnership Facility (WFPF), and in-kind contributions from the beneficiaries.
The original financing helped 364 villages in 32 communes get access to improved water sources. The additional financing expanded rural water supply and sanitation services to 239 new villages in 19 communes. It also enhanced the monitoring; initiated climate change adaptation and disaster risk management; and introduced sanitation solutions. The Ministry of Rural Development (MRD) served as the executing agency for the RWSSP2 and the RWSSP2AF.
Based on the Project Completion Report (2021), the $25.1 million project expanded access to improved rural water supply and sanitation services and improved the health of rural residents in the provinces of Battambang, Kampong Chhnang, Kampong Thom, Pursat, Siem Reap, and Banteay Meanchey. The project focused on: improved community health and hygiene practices; rehabilitated, upgraded, and new water facilities; improved public and household sanitation; strengthened sector planning and development; and improved capacity for project implementation and sustainability.
Nouv Soeum, member of the Commune Committee for Women and Children, shared that the project has improved the quality of life in the community, especially for women. “Before the improvement supported by the project, we, including myself, had to travel far to collect water and spent a lot of time waiting for our turn,” she said. “Now, we have more time that we [can] use for other productive activities.”
Pilot testing of floating toilets
Floating toilets: this ADB-funded project promoted innovation by testing four types of digesters that decomposed waste with or without the presence of air in floating and flood-prone villages in the Tonle Sap Lake.
The WFPF, through a $1.5M grant from the Sanitation Financing Partnership Trust Fund, supported the pilot for floating toilets in Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia in two communes. It also contributed to fecal sludge management in 12 communes under the RWSSP2AF.
The grant enabled the testing of affordable and innovative on-site sanitation for floating and flood-prone villages. It engaged local contractors, skilled laborers, and fecal sludge management operators in building four types of digesters that decomposed waste with the presence of air or without air.
Improving health and women’s oppportunities
Women and girls in particular now benefit from safer water supply and sanitation services after the project rehabilitated existing wells and built new wells and a small community water supply system for about 370,000 rural residents. The updated water sources are closer to their homes (not more than 150 meters), saving them time fetching water and decreasing their risk of sexual harassment or violence.
Access to clean water has also reduced the incidence of waterborne disease, not only among women and children, but in the whole population. It has decreased health-related expenses and the time spent by women caring for sick family members. The time savings have enabled women to be more active in social, political, and economic activities in their villages.
ADB Project Officer Siti Hasanah shared that the strong focus on gender equity created opportunities for women to develop their knowledge, boost their self-confidence, and even start their own business. “Rural water supply and sanitation programs provide an opportunity to deliver direct benefits to women through time savings and improved health, while improving the sustainability of the services,” said Hasanah. “Promoting women’s participation in Water and Sanitation User Groups (WSUGs) and as peer-to-peer facilitators will also contribute to women’s empowerment by strengthening their decision-making abilities in the communities.”
Increasing women’s representation
Women’s involvement in the operation and maintenance of water supply facilities in rural Cambodia helped correct and expand men’s perceptions of what women can do.
The project prepared and carried out a comprehensive gender action plan to promote gender equity. At completion, the project had met the target to increase women’s seats in decision-making bodies. In the 1,8323 WSUGs that were set up and trained by the project, 43% of the total board members were women, exceeding the target of 40%. This also met the goal of ensuring there were two women among each five WSUG board members. The members joined trainings and were responsible for operating and maintaining the water supply facilities.
As many men in the villages had migrated to find work, women took charge of repairing any damages to the community’s facilities. The project, through the project provincial team and commune focals, encouraged women to actively participate in operation and maintenance.
Women’s involvement went beyond activities typically assigned to them, such as booking and report preparation, to encompass fixing handpumps or cleaning water filters. This helped correct and expand men’s perceptions of women. Women also reported increased self-confidence in speaking during meetings when men were present.
Stepping into leadership
Similarly, women made up 50% of the commune and village focals. This representation enabled them to contribute to decision-making for the project design and implementation. For example, women helped ensure that water point locations were in safe places and considered women and girls’ needs.
This included the construction of latrines for 247 schools, with separate facilities for women, men, and the disabled. Women also joined trainings and workshops where they gained knowledge on hygiene, safe use of water, and rural water supply and sanitation.
The project also facilitated women’s access to business opportunities through technical training for commune business groups on latrine construction and waterjet construction and installation. These activities enabled several women to develop businesses focused on the efficient construction of water jars and toilets for their villages.
Women from Siem Reap, Kampong Thom, and Battambang provinces participated in training sessions and successfully developed water jar and toilet businesses. The project helped them expand these businesses by using their products in the project-financed water facility provision.
The project also supported training for women on selling toilets to households involved in sanitation awareness campaigns. This was done through community-led total sanitation programs, organized by several nongovernment organizations in partnership with the project. The communication campaigns alerted households to the improved sanitation facilities, which led to more toilet sales for the women-led businesses.
Influence on gender relations
Water supply and sanitation projects can provide an opportunity to promote gender equity. Find out how women challenged gender stereotypes in rural Cambodia.
The RWSSP2 showed that water supply and sanitation projects can have a transformative influence on how men and women related to each other. The strong support and active involvement of the commune and village leaders and the MRD to carry out the project’s gender action plan contributed to strategic changes at the community level.
“We understood the importance of promoting gender equality through water supply improvement,” said MRD’s Director of Rural Water Supply Srinn Poutthy. “We had a clear plan with targets and timeline, and these helped us to ensure women participated and [were given a] voice during consultation, monitoring, and as board members of Water and Sanitation User Groups. I have personally met many women in the project areas who showed strong capacity as focal persons and as commune representatives, especially after participation in training and other activities.”
Women who were traditionally sidelined in decision-making were able to participate in the planning process. Women’s participation at the project’s early stage enabled the community to consider women’s unique needs. This included considering the need for child or family care during meetings or attending activities, time and mobility constraints, and other limitations imposed by socio-cultural factors. Identifying these issues early on enabled projects to identify the issues and formulate solutions in collaboration with communities.