Many Dy is the Country of Manager of Engineers Without Borders Australia. She works to increase sustainable access to safe water and assistive technology solutions for communities living in Cambodia’s hardest reach and challenging environments. She has challenged social and cultural norms that discourage women from taking leadership positions and pursue higher education. Many encourages young women to participate in the WASH sector to address water and sanitation issues in Cambodia.
In Cambodia, rural communities experience inadequate access to water. Hygienic and sanitation awareness remains low among communities. Insufficient access to water and lack of sanitation in rural poor fuel Many’s passion for working in the WASH sector.
Water and sanitation in the rural community
Many has witnessed issues of a lack of quantity of water and poor hygienic practice in rural communities since starting to work in the field in 2005. “I have visited the community that we worked with,” she says. “They experienced a lack of quantity of water. I did not have water when using the toilet.”
She observes that rural schools didn’t have access to water, affecting students in accessing drinking water and sanitation. “Some students do not bring water with them. They wait around 4 to 5 hours to finish their classes and get water at home,” Many says.
These issues motivate Many to make water available for people living in rural communities. She wants to see rural communities can access clean and adequate water. “Water is life. Cambodians has low awareness of water, sanitation, and hygienic issues,” she adds.
Low women’s participation in the WASH sector
Working in the field for 20 years, Many sees a significant gap in promoting women’s participation in the sector. Many notices that men mostly hold leadership positions, while women have junior positions. “Men mostly hold the leadership positions,” she says.
In the WASH sector, technical skills and practical experience are key challenges for women. Many shares her struggle to recruit qualified female engineers. “We use technology to address hygienic issues in the community, such as a floodplain, hard soil, rock areas, or floating villages,” she says. “They [engineer graduates] do not have the skills to address these issues.”
Gender roles also prevent women from participating in this sector. “It is about the construction site.” She adds that “they [workers in the WASH sector] need to explain to the community about latrine and well construction. They think this type of job is a male job.”
Many encourage stakeholders to pay attention to strengthen women’s skills and practical experience to meet the sector’s needs. “Women need to strengthen their capacity to meet the job market,” she says.
Challenging social norms
A country manager is a dream job for Many, yet the job challenges her professionally and personally. This job takes between 70% and 80% of her time. Work-life balance remains unreachable for Many. “It is impossible to talk about work-life balance,” she says. Many adds that “I spend less time with family because I focus on my work.”
Many’s parents didn’t support her in pursuing higher education and hold leadership positions. Her mother once told her to give up university and run a business at home. Her mother told her that she would be supported by her husband after getting married.
Many challenged her parent’s perspective on women’s roles in society. She decided to pursue higher education and work with nonprofit organizations. Her hard work and perseverance have shown her parent that women are capable of holding a leadership position. “I prove to her that … I am among women who hold leadership positions. I can do it,” she told. “I can show my mother that women can do it, not just only men.”
Being a leader in the male-dominant field
Many has held leadership roles in other countries before assuming the role with Engineers Without Borders Australia. Many shares that her foreign co-workers have not seen much of women holding leadership positions.
She has encountered gender stereotypes while working abroad that motivated her to learn and reflect on herself. “Being a good manager is uneasy,” she said. “I learn [from my work] every day to grow.” Many commits to be a role model at the workplace and bring a good result for her work. “We must … do a good job. Then, they [men] dare not to dismiss us.”
Many said it was challenging to manage 50 Khmer staff and 30 foreign staff while working abroad as the country manager at Credit Union Foundation Australia. She said that networking and learning from foreign colleagues helped to raise funds to support her project.
Vision for the WASH sector
Many wants to train young engineers on practical skills that can address issues faced by the communities. She also wants to see Cambodia reaches all water, sanitation, and hygiene targets. “We want to train the younger generation on practical skills. We train them so that they can continue this work in the future.”
Messages for women and girls
Many encourages women and girls to stand up for themselves and participate in the WASH sector. “We need to tell ourselves that we can do what men can do. This is how we can participate in the development,” she said.
She raises that communication skills are essential for leadership. She motivates women and girls to strengthen these skills. “We need to have strong communication skills both in Khmer and English. It is not just only speaking skills; it includes your attitude.”
This article is part of the HerRoles Campaign, co-organized by the WaterAid Cambodia and Next Women Generation. HerRoles Campaign aims to raise awareness of public on women’s roles and leadership in the WASH sector in Cambodia.