Cambodia’s Rural Women Beating Poverty with Partnerships

Cambodian women need to be empowered to overcome poverty and build skills for a sustainable future. Photo: ADB
Cambodian women need to be empowered to overcome poverty and build skills for a sustainable future. Photo: ADB

By Karin Schelzig

Challenges and potential solutions for rural Cambodian women seeking financial independence through skills training and public-private partnerships.

When her children got sick she went into debt and was forced to sell part of her land to pay the bills. She migrated to the city for construction work, leaving the children with her elderly mother, but the jobs were low-paid and temporary, and she and her family slid into poverty.

Roeung is sadly far from alone.  Despite being home to Cambodia’s main tourist attraction of Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples, Siem Reap is among the country’s poorest provinces.  More than two thirds of all Cambodian women over the age of 25 have not completed primary school.  Socio-economic surveys clearly show an inverse relationship between years of schooling and poverty rates.  What opportunities are there for poor rural women?  

We know that skills are essential for women’s economic empowerment, but the various livelihood training programs delivered by the government, development partners and civil society are often short-term, and budgets are limited. What’s more, simply developing women’s skills doesn’t ensure access to markets, jobs, or a stable income. Could public-private partnerships be the answer?

In 2008, Roeung signed up for a weaving initiative at the Siem Reap Women’s Development Center, or WDC, which had just been established by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs with support from ADB’s Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction.  Lasting three months, it was the longest course Roeung had completed since leaving school after the fourth grade. The WDC invited her to join a producer group and become a trainer, but when the project ended in 2010, so did Roeung’s income.

Roeung used her savings to buy a loom and launch a business making silk scarves. But running a business brought challenges in design, quality control and market information. Without technical support, Roeung abandoned her new vocational skills and again turned to poorly paid, irregular construction work.

Today, Roeung earns up to $225 per month, has saved nearly $500, and helps other women in her village improve their skills and start their own businesses.

In 2011, with new funding from the German Agency for International Cooperation, Roeung took part in more training at the WDC, this time learning product design, dyeing and coloring techniques. She wanted guidance in marketing her skills, but none was forthcoming. So she accepted a weaving job in a neighboring commune earning just $60 per month.

A year later, she found new work with Artisans d’Angkor, a Siem Reap based social enterprise. Artisans offered on-the-job training at a production facility near her home. In a new collaboration with the WDC, Artisans selected Roeung—now 34—to become a trainer and develop new Ikat designs and knotting techniques with raw silk.  

The collaboration of Artisans d’Angkor and the WDC came about with grant assistance from ADB’s Gender and Development Cooperation Fund in 2012. The grant helped the Ministry of Women’s Affairs explore options and create favorable conditions for public-private partnerships with local businesses. The Ministry selected Artisans d’Angkor for their shared vision of economic empowerment for local women through the development of traditional handicrafts. Details of the formal partnership are still being worked out, but this collaboration will only further improve skills, market access and livelihoods for women like Tep Roeung.  

Today, Roeung earns up to $225 per month. She’s debt-free and has saved nearly $500. She plans to install solar panels at home so she can weave at night to further boost her income. Where once she was fearful of facing the community after her husband abandoned her, she’s now an active member of an all-women producers’ group and helps women in her village improve their skills and even start their own businesses.

“No one or two training courses can change your life immediately,” she says. “We need the combination that I have had – or even more than I have had – for all women. Both vocational and social training is vital for rural women to change their lives.”