Notes from the Field

Protecting Cambodia’s Natural Resources to Empower Rural Women

March 7, 2010

If you ask Mrs. Sophorn from rural Pursat province in western Cambodia, protecting Cambodia’s threatened natural resources is one of the most important steps toward alleviating poverty in her country. Approximately 80 percent of Cambodians live in rural areas, with 71 percent depending primarily on agriculture (largely rice) and livestock for their livelihoods. To support themselves, poor families rely heavily on natural resources for income, often by harvesting and selling fish or forest products such as resin, honey, mushrooms, and rattan. Yet, these opportunities are threatened from natural resource degradation due to over consumption, land conflicts, and limited community control over illegal usage.

Rural women are particularly affected by this problem. In Cambodia, as in many developing countries, women struggle with traditional gender-defined roles that often restrict women’s participation in decision-making, lower education levels, higher prevelance of domestic violence cases, and limit women’s access to resources like credit, land, and paying jobs. Poverty is overwhelming in rural areas (about 35 percent below the poverty line) and especially prevalent among landless families and women-headed households.

Empowering rural Cambodian women by recognizing their crucial role in economic and social development is central to The Asia Foundation’s Community Based Organization (CBO) program. The program supports community-based local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to help rural communities gain greater access to natural resources with an emphasis on teaching responsible management of natural resources and diversifying job opportunities.

As members of the CBO, they are encouraged to organize themselves, identify and address constraints, articulate requests, and to become vocal change agents in their communities. They are also urged to voice their concerns with local authorities to address community needs.

 Phann Mon, a member of a Community Based Organization in Cambodia's southerwestern Koh Kong province.

Phann Mon, a member of a Community Based Organization in Cambodia's southwestern Koh Kong province.

Perhaps even more importantly, the CBO trains its members on day-to-day skills to improve their business acumen, such as negotiating with middle-men, and offers credits to start small-income generating activities like growing vegetables, keeping fish ponds, and raising chickens. They are also instructed on ways to better manage forest and water resources through sustainable fishing and harvesting methods.

After two years, the CBO program now has 82,524 female members. Many members report that men in their families are beginning to recognize the positive impact their involvement in the program has on their families, and have thus begun allowing them to join meetings and trainings, and are more willing to support them in household tasks. For example, Mrs. Sophorn said that her husband now allows her to attend meetings that help her learn more about land, fish, and forestry laws as well as legal gender equality rights. For rural women like Ms. Saphorn, most of whom haven’t finished primary school, access to this type of knowledge is critical. And, now, her husband helps with growing vegetables, cooks while she attends meetings, and looks after the children when she goes to the market.

Mrs. Saroeun from Ratanakiri province, recently said that “by being an active member of the CBO, my husband has seen that I am able to earn money and he respects the responsibility and leadership that I have shown as treasurer of the CBO. My husband and I discuss options together before making a decision more frequently now.”

Using knowledge acquired from a bookkeeping training, Samear can now reliably calculate the family income and expenditure. “I now question my father about the reason why our house is still not finished while other families with less land and crops have a bigger house,” she says. “Before, I used to believe my father when he said there was no money, now I know the problem is related to the way he spends the money.”

Women in rural Cambodia are already playing an important role in the economic and social development of their families and their country. Building their capacity to do more and to have an equal say is an essential part of sustainable development.

Dorie Meerkerk is a Program Officer in The Asia Foundation’s Cambodia office. She can be reached at dmeerkerk@asiafound.org.

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