Women taking the lead in Cambodia

Women all over the world are working hard to carve out a place as leaders alongside men. Oxfam and our partners in Cambodia are helping men and women in environmentally sensitive rural areas to share leadership and decision-making power, and find the best ways to protect the forest, rivers, and other natural resources on which they rely.

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The bad news mobilized the small riverside community of Padol: Strangers were cutting trees illegally in the protected forest on the other side of the Sesan River, and the village had to stop them. The indigenous Jarai village elders and the community discussed what to do: Of the proposals, ideas, and comments they heard, those of the women were most reasonable. So the elders put a small group of them in charge of representing the community.

Soon, a determined group of women were crossing the fast-flowing Sesan in boats. “I was not scared,” says Romas Phlul, 48. “I just really wanted to stop them. Even if we did not have a boat, I would have swum across the river to stop them.”

When they arrived, the women asked the three workers if they had any documents showing they had the right to cut the trees, and when they did not, the women seized all their chainsaws and motorbikes and invited them to their village to discuss the matter. The next day, a representative from the “7 January” company that had hired the loggers came and tried to negotiate access to the forest, and resolve the dispute, but he got nowhere with the women of Padol.

“Every time you cut a tree, I will come there to stop you,” one woman told him.

Women and the forest

The indigenous communities of northern Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province are under pressure: More than 10 indigenous groups are now trying to consolidate their communal land in forest areas they can call their own in the face of aggressive government and private company moves to gain control of vast economic land concessions for agribusiness and mining. The government has granted some 20 percent of Ratanakiri’s land to these economic land concessions, more than a quarter million acres, according to research conducted by Oxfam’s allies in Cambodia, including the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. These concessions have been granted frequently without any consultation with local indigenous communities, a violation of their rights under Cambodia’s land laws and international law.

Indigenous women have a lot at stake. “For centuries, indigenous women have relied on natural resources,” says Dam Chanthy, the director of the Highlander Association and an indigenous Toumpoun woman. “They say ‘the forest is our market’ because they get their vegetables, wood—everything-- in the forest.”

She is with a group of men and women from Padol at a sacred place on an island in the middle of the Sesan, a place of worship for the community, amidst tall trees and next to rapids rushing over and around rocks in the river.

Chanthy says places like this in the forest are important cultural spaces for indigenous people; they are where they worship their ancestors. “Every community has a spirit forest, and it is integral to indigenous culture and life.”

The government has granted some 20 percent of Ratanakiri’s land to economic land concessions, more than a quarter million acres, according to research conducted by Oxfam’s allies in Cambodia, including the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights.

Working together

Like most places, men tend to be in charge in these indigenous communities in Ratanakiri. But the Highlander Association (HA), working with grants and other support from Oxfam, is helping communities to question the traditional gender roles that society imposes on men and women. Now, men and women are learning to work together in new ways.

Rather than feeling threatened, men in Padol said they appreciated what the women did that day. “If men had gone to stop the loggers, there might have been violence, and we might not have been able to understand why they came to cut down the forest,” says Rochom Ntol, 43. “But women don’t use violence. They can speak peacefully and learn about the root causes of the problem--that’s why it’s good to have women involved in making decisions and helping to protect our forest lands.”

Romas Shyob, 39, says men like him in Padol are aware that if they are to protect their valuable forest, they need help from everyone. “Any male leader now says we need women to participate in decisions... And when there is an opportunity to send people to represent the community, we send women.”

In Padol, according to Sav Kheat, a 31-year-old woman, “all the decisions are no longer just made by men.”

Women protect the river

Hong Rany’s first patrol to look for illegal fishers on the Mekong River at night in a narrow, tippy boat was tough: It was dark, it was about to rain, and she and the fishery patrol team passed some islands where people say spirits live, so it was spooky. “It was cold, and I was scared,” she admits more than a year later. “There’s potential for dangerous conditions in bad weather, and if you meet any illegal fishermen there may be a confrontation.” But she also says when they cut the engine and drift in the current, “I can hear the sound of fish splashing around the boat, and it’s beautiful.”

For Rany, the nighttime river patrol is routine now. But it was once unusual for a woman to participate. “I had to prove I could do it,” she says, standing high above the bank of the Mekong, looking west into the afternoon sun.

Rany, 26, lives in a small village on the Mekong River called Ksach Leav. People here derive much of their food and income from fish in the river and are concerned about a declining fish population. Oxfam’s partner Northeast Rural Development (NRD) helped Ksach Leav and about six other villages establish a registered Community Fishery: a section of the river reserved for their use, where they are responsible for enforcing regulations that protect fish spawning areas, restrict net sizes, and prohibit use of explosives and electrocution.

Each Community Fishery has a committee that teaches fishing families about the regulations, raises awareness of important ways to conserve the fishery, and organizes patrols to enforce the regulations. It has an elected leader, and in early 2018 the people in Ksach Leav elected Hong Rany.

“Some people did not want me to be the leader of the Community Fishery committee, including the village chief,” Rany says, at the home she shares with her parents on Chrem Island, about 30 minutes by boat from the main part of Ksach Leav. “He was not happy to see me elected.”

She says the chief and other government officials spoke out against her. “I heard they said ‘we wonder why the community elected her; she’s young and inexperienced. How can she organize the patrolling? She’s a girl, she can’t patrol at night.’ I felt discouraged when I heard those words.”

The chief and others complained to NRD’s Executive Director Sam Sovann, so he came to meet with Rany.

“He came to the village and I met him at the pagoda,” Rany explained. “He said, ‘you have to do this, you have to prove to them that yes, you are a young woman, but you can do everything.’ He helped me get training in gender and women’s leadership, youth leadership, and advocacy. It helped me be more confident when talking with leaders in the community.”

Rany set about re-unifying the fishery committee, as some members had resigned in protest when she was elected. “I had to clarify the structure of the committee and our plans,” she says. “I would say 80 percent of these issues have been resolved, and we are functioning well.”

More training with NRD helped her learn to raise money. “We raised $2,500 to buy equipment, build a shelter for the team, and raise awareness of the fishery laws,” she says.

Son Sovann, a program coordinator from NRD, says those who were once critical of Rany “appreciate her more now, now they support her.”

In the meantime, Rany leads the night patrol. “When it rains at night it can be difficult, but we have raincoats, and we stay out on the river and talk with the fishermen,” she says. “It’s a tough job but in the end I like it. That’s why I want to do it.”

Learning about leading

Sometime back in the late 1970s, when Sau Suntary was about 20, she went to another village to visit her grandmother. It was during the Khmer Rouge years, so she says someone “reported my presence to a particularly cruel woman leader. She came and demanded to see written authorization for me to come there, and threatened me that without it, ‘we will have no food for you.’” Back then, Suntary says “as long as you were strong, and good at using force and violence and shouting and threatening and intimidating people into following your orders, you can be a leader. They did not care if you were a woman.”

Thankfully, she says things are different now. “We all want knowledgeable leaders, and you have to train to be a good leader.” For her, training with Oxfam’s partner NRD has helped her take on a variety of leadership roles in her village, Svay Chek, a fishing community right on the Mekong, where she is the leader of the Community Fishery committee and serves on a commune council.

“I talk about how men and women have equal rights, and [that] we need to seek out opportunities for women to lead the community. I want women to be leaders, and to contribute to the development initiatives we have here as leaders.”

Suntary serves on a regional network of Community Fishery leaders, so she knows Hong Rany and has coached her on leadership skills. That may explain the way Rany describes her leadership style: “I am a leader who does not force people to do things. I don’t threaten people. As a leader I have to be an implementer, I implement first so people can see how I lead. I try to give them a good example.”

A disempowered woman is like a frog in a well, waiting for food to drop in.

Dam Chanthy
Director, Highlander Association, Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia

Youth connection

In every community where NRD has helped establish a Community Fishery, it also encourages young people to set up a Youth Group to help the Community Fishery committee.

Bo Sophea, a 26-year-old married woman with a young son, volunteered to lead the Youth Group in her village, a place wedged between the road and the Mekong called Sandan. She says that hydropower dams upstream and widespread illegal fishing are affecting the fish catch in this area of the river.

“I want to mobilize other youth to raise awareness about illegal fishing,” she says. “We spread information and encourage people to report any illegal fishing on the river.”

She has a bigger concern, however. People in this area, known as Sambo District, are hearing about a proposed hydropower dam that would stretch across the river here to Rogniev Island, forcing villages like Sandan to relocate and potentially altering the river’s flow. The dam could also affect the fish population, including the rare Irrawaddy dolphins still found here that bring tourists to the area.

Tep Sarom (everyone here calls her Srey Neang), 26, another Youth Group leader in a small village called Samphin on Rogniev Island, says her group has created community theater performances to raise awareness about illegal fishing, but when she talks with the village chief about a play she wants to write about the Sambo dam, he forbids it. “I have to prove to people that there really is a dam planned,” she says, adding that no one has any information about the feasibility studies the government has carried out.

Both Srey Neang and Sophea say training with NRD on gender, youth leadership, and other skills are helping them learn to lead. “I use the facilitation skills NRD taught me in women’s leadership training,” Srey Neang says, standing on a small island next to her home village as the sun sets across the river and dolphins rise to the surface to breathe. “I recently conducted a training on community rights to free prior and informed consent,” she says, adding that she hopes this knowledge will help her community assert its right to information about the proposed dam.

Their elder colleague Sau Suntary has confidence in the ability of these young women leaders: “I really appreciate the young women, the next generation of leaders. They are committed to lead the community. They are young and have a lot of energy,” she says.

“I want young women to do more.”

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Additional credits: Lead photo: When people in Padol heard that loggers were cutting trees illegally in their communal forest, a group of women including these leaders were deployed across the Sesan River in boats to represent the community. Pictured here are (l to r) Sav Kheet, Dam Chanthy (director of the Highlander Association, Oxfam’s partner in Ratanakiri), Chom Dem, Romas Phlol, Sav Apt, Sav Chhon. This photo was taken by Savann Oeurm.

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