Nicole Johnston, Southern Africa Media Coordinator, had a chance to visit Cambodia to find out how digital technology benefits rural women there. Here’s what she found.
There’s a quiet revolution going on in Cambodia, and it is being led by rural women who are using digital technology to improve their own lives. In small villages across the provinces, women who previously held subordinate positions in their society are finding their voices and taking up leadership roles to develop their communities.
It all started with Women for Prosperity, an Oxfam partner, which aims to empower women and ensure their increased participation in political life, from the local government level upwards. Founded by the inspirational Nanda Pok – who fled Cambodia just two weeks before the Khmer Rouge came to power and who returned in 1992 to help rebuild her country ahead of the first election – WFP’s goal is to develop women’s leadership at all levels of society.
It is work that is bearing fruit. In Kratie, we met Lon Ny (56), a female commune councillor. Lon Ny has a jovial personality and punctuates her speech with shouts of laughter.
“I attended three WFP trainings before I was elected as a commune councillor. They taught us about leadership skills and self-confidence and how to participate in the council. Now in our district, 7 out of 10 commune councillors are women and you can see the difference because they are the ones that deal well with women’s issues such as the need to have a midwife and a health centre.”
Her colleague Chean Pun wears the uniform of a commune councillor with pride. Both women are part of an innovative project that uses mobile technology to improve women’s participation in governance. The female commune councillors were all provided with mobile phones and taught how to use them to send text messages and seek assistance on a variety of issues from accessing emergency health care to checking on market prices for their crops. “If a man is beating his wife I will go with the chief and a few other people to stop it. Then I use my phone to call the police and they listen because I am a councillor, otherwise it would be difficult to get them to intervene. The local police have learned that if they don’t give me proper service I will go over their heads and phone the provincial commander,” Lon Ny says with a wry smile.
But why are the phones pink?
“The pink phone shows that it belongs to the women,” explains Chean Pun. “If anyone sees a man holding a pink phone they will know he has taken it away from a woman.”
In Kampong Thom, commune councillor Seng Chan Thau (40) greets us on the steps of the commune office. Behind her, women are busily packaging and labelling taro and banana crisps, and bottling pickles. She is also a member of the mobile technology project and agrees that it has made a huge difference in women’s lives.
“Sometimes it is better for women to talk to other women especially about health issues, and women are often not brave enough to talk to the hospital directly or to men about these things. If a pregnant woman starts bleeding in the middle of the night then I can use my phone and my influence as a councilor to get the hospital to send transport to fetch her, because the patients can’t afford a taxi.”
If the hospital has no vehicle available, the villagers club together to raise money for a taxi, which can cost as much as $13 – a huge amount in an area where people live close to the poverty line. She explains that in each pagoda there is a box where they collect money for medical emergencies. “People understand the importance of health, so they are happy to contribute.”
The women’s group in her commune is also determined to improve their standard of living and have formed a collective to process and package food for sale.
Kim Lor (55) is a smallholder farmer who lives off her rice field, some chickens and ducks. She joined the collective three months ago because she wanted to find a market for her goods. “I was well known for making poork kampish [pickled shrimp] so I helped to teach the others. We also make pickled white carrot, and crisps from taro and banana.” The commune office has recently allocated them a space that they can use to set up a roadside stall to sell their products. “I really need to earn this money because I need it for school fees and other household necessities. My husband has no income so it is very important that we have this business.”
In both provinces, the phone project has also helped the councillors on a personal level. “My husband was always drinking alcohol and wanting to be the boss at home,” says Lon Ny. “But since I have learned to be assertive and I know my rights, he has changed. My daughter got married and went to live in another village and her husband started beating her. I went there and stopped it, and I am in contact with the commune councillor there, so she can call me if there is a problem.”
Like women the world over, gender inequality adds to the already heavy load that poor rural women have to bear: “The problems arise when men drink alcohol or when they are earning money outside the home. Then they come home and act very proud and want to criticise everything,” says Lon Ny with a sigh. “So then we explain to them about the unpaid labour their wives do for them such as cooking and cleaning. I ask them ‘if you go out to work and come home and no one has done your laundry, will you throw your clothes out and buy new ones?’ I also remind them that when they are sick it is the women who will be taking care of them,” she chuckles.
Chean Pun is also a farmer, like most villagers, and proudly displays the corn, pumpkins and sweet potatoes she has grown. “We sell our crops to middlemen, and this SMS system helps because they send me information on what the market prices are in Phnom Penh so I can compare that with the price the traders are offering us in the village.
Texting in the Khmer language is no easy task however, as it requires users to memorise a long list of key commands, because mobile phones don’t support the Khmer alphabet. But the women have put in long hours learning to text swiftly and accurately. They are determined to master new technology and have a palpable sense of pride that they are able to do so. As we leave, Lon Ny points to my laptop and says with a confident smile, “Next, I want to learn how to use that computer and the internet”.
*Communes are administrative sub-divisions of districts and councilors are elected by villagers in the commune.