Women in Cambodia’s water sector: a lack troubling for gender equity, peace, & water security

This piece by Seanghak KHIN and Piseth KIM is the third in a short series featuring voices from emerging experts in Cambodia on the water-energy-food nexus and resource management in the Mekong region.


Photo of Young Professional participants of Center for Sustainable Water (CSW) activities, taken by a CSW volunteer in October 2017 and reposted via the author.

In the Lower Mekong Region, although women are responsible for water fetching, food production and family subsistence, the role of women in decision making about water resource management is still very limited. Women are often excluded from decision-making and information sharing regarding the access to and use of water resources both at the household level and also at national and regional levels. This lack of women’s involvement in decision-making is a crucial obstacle to water security. This is a challenge for Cambodia, but there are many efforts currently underway to improve women’s participation in the water sector. The government has an opportunity to build on these efforts and improve Cambodia’s water future.

Gender and Water Security

The role that women play in water security has been overwhelmingly recognized by stakeholders including the international community. Integrated Water Resource management (IWRM) is a framework designed to improve water resource management and good water governance through stakeholder collaboration and the involvement of local communities in decision-making. Addressing gender issues is essential in promoting and advancing the economic, social, political, legal and cultural role and status of women, and this is explicitly included in IWRM Duplin principles adopted at the 1992 Dublin Conference on Water as well as the Rio de Janeiro Summit on Sustainable Development. Women are recognized internationally for playing a key role in the delivery of safe water and food to communities, and at the household level women are recognized as primary decision-makers.

This infographic shows Sustainable Development Goals related to water. It was published by PBL Netherlands in The Geography of Future Water Challenges in 2018 and can be found at its original source here: https://www.pbl.nl/en/publications/the-geography-of-future-water-challenges.

The implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 5: Gender equity and 6: Safe Water and Sanitation need to be considered together. Ultimately, the interventions of Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) and its facilities will be most effective if they are designed in ways to protect women from violence and harassment and reduce the time that women and girls spend on water collection, treatment and disposal. Achieving SDG 6 will require coordination with other SDGs because investments in water and sanitation free up women’s time for other tasks, therefore facilitating access to a wider range of employment opportunities and potentially contributing to achievement of decent work and poverty eradication.

In Cambodia, improving women’s participation in the water sector is a critical goal. Currently, a WaterAid report indicates that women’s rate of participation as WASH professionals is too low in both vocational and tertiary education. Only 0.4% of women work as professional and technical workers in the WASH sector, and only 1% of women work as managers. In water supply and sewage, the employment rate for women is only a little over one third that of men.

In Cambodia, women lack involvement in water sector because of cultural norms that unfairly construct the role of women as housewives and limited access to higher education. A second reason is poverty and its intersection with gender: most women are poor because of the civil war in Cambodia from 1965 to 1975, which has limited their access to higher education and also to skilled job opportunities. 

A key principle of human centered design states that people who are closest to issues are those who hold the keys to improving and solving them. This may hold true for Cambodia’s water sector. When exploring the impacts of climate change on local communities, women are the most vulnerable because of their weak body as a childbirth giving and menstrual health, and responsibilities being a head of household, for example during flooding, children unable to go to school, so women need to stay home and looks after their children. In effect, women’s bodies and labor in carrying water become a key part of the water-delivery infrastructure, replacing the work of pipes. In addition, when water is insecure, it causes high levels of mental and physical stress. A source of clean and affordable domestic water and safe sanitation facilities which can be reliably accessed are key elements of sustainable development and empowerment for women, particularly the poor.

Efforts to Address Gender Inequality in Cambodia

The Institute of Technology of Cambodia (ITC) has been deeply active on addressing female equity.  In order to attract female students, ITC provided a discount of 50% discount (2013) for school fees, which has decreased to 30% as ITC has successfully increased the number of female students to 25.5% as of the 2018-2019 academic year. Specifically, in the faculty of Hydrology and Water Resource Engineering, formerly the Department of Rural Engineering (GRU), the enrollment rate of female students in academic year 2016-2017 was 21% for engineering and 30% for the technician program. However, some challenges remain.  Less than 50% of alumni in Water Engineers field are working in the water sector, and more than 50% are doing jobs in construction or civil field. A World Bank report predicts that Cambodia will need around 12,000 WASH professionals to implement water services required by 2030, while only 841 staff are currently working in WASH sector.

A few organizations are working to help address this issues. Due to human resource capacity constraint in the water sector in Cambodia, the Center for Sustainable Water (CSW) was established with the vision of creating ‘An inspired and dedicated Cambodian Water sector.’ CSW’s mission is to build the next generation of water leaders to promote sustainable water management in Cambodia. CSW programs such as the Young Professionals program and student support services center are designed to ensure gender equity through quotas for female participation, the creation of enabling environments to ensure equal participation opportunities, and provision of safe spaces for all in the programs. In addition, CSW runs a Women in WASH scholarship, which provides financial assistance, mentoring, and professional networking connection for 10 women annually who study in the faculty of Hydrology and Water Resource engineering at ITC.

UN Women—the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women—work to improve equality in Cambodia through increasing the participation of women both informal and formal decision- making processes in water governance. UN Women aims to leverage women’s voice and promote their leadership capacities.

Oxfam has worked on gender and water governance for more than 15 years, promoting women’s participation in water governance in the Mekong region. They pay particular attention to gender and women’s leadership in water governance. Oxfam works to understand women’s specific need and train them to have a full role and ability to overcome the issue. They also support women to participate in workshops and forums both national and international to give a voice to the issues, improve their motivation and exchange learning each other which affect them closely.

The Cambodian government has responded to the need for further mainstreaming of gender issues through creating departments of gender in ministries that work related to water including the Ministry of Rural Development and the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology. These Department of Gender work to identify the issues that make women live in poverty, less right and opportunity in education as well as job employment, provide institutional support for inclusion and elevation of women, improve their leadership and capacity development, and improve women economic empowerment by introducing them to entrepreneurship and practices of safe menstrual hygiene management. Additionally, the government has set targets to increase the number of women employees in order to achieve better gender equality. Through notifications from the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, female employees shall receive maternity leave for a period of ninety days with at least half of their wage including seniority bonus and attendance bonus before or after giving birth. For mothers who breath-feeding their children are entitled one hour per days to breath-feed their children during working hour for one year from the date of child delivery.

In order to further improve the overall effectiveness of women in Cambodia’s water sector, the government of Cambodia and relevant stakeholders could do the following:

  • Increase the number of female students in water field by supporting them with scholarships​ and reduction of tuition fee.
  • Inspire and encourage students and young professional, especially women to work in technical and leadership role in water sector.  
  • Promote women’s access to water-related jobs and capacity development training opportunities.
  • Create wider opportunities for women mid-career professionals and sub-national authorities to upgrade skills and knowledge by introducing them to other areas of focus such as entrepreneurship, innovations, technology development in the water sector.
  • Increase women’s income through enhanced efficiency and address productivities constraints in agriculture and other sectors in which most Cambodian women work.
  • Providing opportunities for women’s participation in decision-making positions in water resource management through raising up their voice.
  • Improving access for women to safe water, saving time and promoting better hygiene and health.

Seanghak Khin works with Caritas Switzerland in Cambodia, where she works on Water Governance and Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). She was previously a Program Coordinator on Innovation and Research program at Center for Sustainable Water. She holds a master’s degree in Water Engineering and Management in Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Thailand and a bachelor’s degree in Hydrology and Water Resource Engineering in Institute of Technology of Cambodia (ITC), Cambodia.

Piseth Kim is the Project Manager at the Community Assessment Capacity Building Lab (CACB) and Project SAART. He was previously a Program Coordinator at Center for Sustainable Water (CSW). Piseth has a water resources and environmental engineering educational background in Cambodia and Indonesia, and has been working in Cambodia water sector since 2015.

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