Many Dy: I challenge social norms to hold a leadership position

Many Dy is the Country Manager of Engineers Without Borders Australia in Cambodia. She works to increase sustainable access to safe WASH, and assistive technology solutions for communities living in hardest reach and challenging environments in Cambodia. Many has worked in health sector including waster and sanitation, HIVAIDS, and mean corpuscular hemoglobin for over 20 years in Cambodia, Timor Leste, and Myanmar.

Many Dy’s interview with Next Women Generation

[Below is a translation of the interview which is edited for clarity.]

Q: How are you doing?

Many: I am normally busy as the country manager. I have many things to do, including partnership, resource mobilization, human resource management, financial management, and program management. I do all these tasks. The Engineers Without Borders is a small organization in Cambodia. We don’t have an admin and finance officer. We don’t have an operation manager. Everything falls under the responsibility of the country manager.

Q: When did you start working in the WASH sector?

Many: I have been working in the field for many years. I have worked on that since I was with ActionAid. There, I worked on an education program aligning with the WASH concept. We worked with schools, focusing on water and sanitation for students. I have worked with ActionAid 5 or 6 years between 2005 and 2011.

After that, I have worked with the Credit Union Foundation Australia in Timor Leste. We promoted concept of a community-saving group. We integrated the WASH program into our work. I have worked in Timor Leste for more than three years.

Then, I worked with Child Fund on this issue for about 2 or 3 years. I was a provincial manager there. I managed almost 100 schools, including formal and annex schools. We included the WASH program in our work at Child Fund.

Q: Why are you interested in working on WASH?

Many: Water is life. There is limited knowledge on water and sanitation among people in Cambodia. WASH also includes personal hygiene. When we work on this issue, we think about whether rural communities can access water as we do in the city. We live in Phnom Penh; we can access clean water.

In the rural community, there is also a limited quantity of water and a lack of clean water. Some areas experience droughts. When I visited communities and schools, I experienced a low quantity of water. I did not have water when I used the local people’s toilet. Water is essential for women; we need water when we use the toilet. Some schools did not have water to supply school toilets. Then, the toilet was clogged and unusable. So, the schools have a toilet but no water.

For students, they bring only one bottle of water from home. Some students do not bring water with them. They walk about 3 or 4 km to school. They do not have money to buy drinking water. Their parents do not give them money. Some students bring only a tiny quantity of water with them to drink. When they want to have extra water, they cannot access it. They must wait until they go back home to drink water. They wait around 4 to 5 hours to finish their classes and get water at home. These issues fuel my passion for making water available for the rural community.

I think about women’s issues. Men can defecate anywhere. But women need a toilet. Some homes do not have a toilet. So, they defecate wherever they can find. Women are more reserved. Men can defecate anywhere, but women cannot. I think about issues faced by women. This is one of the main issues in Cambodia. It needs participation from us. I do not have money to contribute, but I have knowledge and skills. I think about how I can share my knowledge with the rural community.

Q: You have worked a lot in the WASH sector. What have you observed about women’s participation in the sector?

Many: There is a big gap when talking about women’s participation in the sector. For instance, men mostly hold the leadership positions. Women mostly have a lower position, such as an officer or junior position. These women are mostly not authorized to manage partners. Most men manage partners because they need to conduct field visits. It is challenging to visit isolated communities. Generally, women do not want to travel a lot. There is some exception for some women who are highly committed to their work—a small number of women committed to working in the WASH sector.

For low-skilled female workers, the low number of women is caused by their skills, capacity, and opportunity to engage in the sector. For technical female workers, there is a significant gap in the field. Engineering graduates in Cambodia have limited skills that match the job market; they learn theory in school. They do not have practical skills. When we recruit them to develop something for us, they take more time to learn about it because they have less experience. It is challenging for us to recruit qualified female candidates, especially female engineers with expertise in the field. We have many engineer graduates, but fewer people with experience in developing products. We use technology to address hygienic issues in the community, such as a floodplain, hard soil, rock areas, or floating villages. They [engineer graduates] do not have the skills to address these issues. There are many WASH graduates, but they study general subjects. There is a lack of specialization in WASH major as well. Therefore, we face challenges in recruiting staff.

Q: Why is there low women’s participation in the WASH sector?

Many: As I mentioned earlier, first is about their skills. Secondly, it is about the construction site. Mostly they need to explain to the community about latrine and well construction. They think this type of job is a male job. More men work in this sector than women. That’s why we have a lower number of women in the sector.

Q: Why do women think that latrine and well construction is a male job?

Many: Because it is related to construction. When talking about construction, they think it is a male job. Women primarily work on programs such as education and awareness-raising in the community. They believe that construction and engineering are the fieldwork; they need to visit the sites. Therefore, some women are not interested in this job.

Second, it is about the opportunity. Some NGOs recruit staff requiring skills and experience. Most candidates have skills but lack practical experience. Some candidates have practical experience but lack skills. Thus, women need to strengthen their capacity to meet the job market.

Q: What should be done to promote women’s participation in the WASH sector?

Many: Training is essential. They must equip with capacity. You cannot just walk into the sector as you wish. In general, the employer pays for staff’s knowledge and experience. To participate in the sector, they must learn more, including soft and practical skills. So, women must strengthen their capacity.

Q: What challenges do you encounter as a mother and woman holding leadership position in the field?

Many: I spend more time on my work. It is impossible to talk about work-life balance. My job consumes about 70% or 80% of my time. I am the country manager; I work on everything. I have to do fundraising to grow my organization. I manage human and financial resources. I also manage partners and networks. All of these need a lot of time.

I do not want to talk about male domination in the field because some men value my capacity. If women have more knowledge and perform well in their works, no one can discredit you. Women need to strengthen their capacity to perform our job well. I keep learning while working to move forward. As a result, I spend less time with family because I focus on my work.

Q: Culture and tradition remain the challenge for women. Do you see it as a challenge for you?

Many: I experienced it when I was younger. My parents and relatives have never expected that I could be where I am today because I am a woman. They told me to run a business or study medicine so that I could run it at home upon graduation. I challenged them. I worked hard. I have worked from a lower position to where I am.

I asked my husband to understand me as well. I told him that I did not want him to provide me, even though I am his wife. I can earn better. I also changed my mother’s perspective. She thought a daughter could not do anything. I prove to her that I am more capable than average men. I am among women who hold leadership positions. I can do it. I can show my mother that women can do it, not just only men.

Q: How do you convince your parents?

Many: I am the only child in my family. My mother was a teacher. She wanted me to get an education. When I finished high school, my mother told me that ‘you do not need to work because your husband would provide you.’

She wanted me to study so that I could calculate and run a business. She did not want me to work this hard. I told her that I wanted to do more than that. She followed me when I was in junior high school and high school. She was concerned that I would not attend school and have a boyfriend. I showed her that I studied hard. I did well in school. I showed her my certificate.

I asked her to take care of my children while I went to work. I challenged her on this matter as well. I told her that this is what I can provide to our family so that we can have enough. I wanted to show that women can raise their children by themselves, with or without a husband. She has changed her perspective since then.

Q: How do you overcome the challenges that you mentioned earlier?

Many: I study a lot. I have three diplomas. I finished journalism at the Department of Media and Communication. Then, I graduated with the Master of International Business Law at Royal University of Law and Economics. I also got a master’s degree in public health in Australia.

I perform well in my work. I set a target of where I want to be. I enjoy working as a technical person than management. Management is complicated because we need to manage staff. A technical person does not focus on the team; they focus only on their technicality and program. Later on, I changed my mind. I think I would like to learn about management. I should do both. I started as a project officer, and now I am the country manager.

Q: What do you want to see more in the WASH sector?

Many: We want to train the younger generation on practical skills. We train them so that they can continue this work in the future. We work to influence government policy. We reach about 76% target of the WASH sector. The remaining target is the challenging area, especially climate change and resilience. We advocate to reach all targets. We want to achieve 100% of our target for clean water. EWD has the technical skills to develop technology for the ministry. Technology is expensive. Thus, we advocate having a government subsidy to support the latrine development. This is critical work; otherwise, the government would not reach 100% of their targets. The remaining issues in the WASH sector are the most complicated issues to address. As you can see, we face climate change such as a flood. Our technology needs to adapt to the context of climate change, especially at hard soil and seasonal floodplain.

Q: How about women’s participation in the sector?

Many: If we want to have more women, each NGO needs to set its target. At our organization, we place a quota of at least 50% of our staff are women. We have more women than men in our organization. Our volunteers are primarily women. We have five female volunteers among eight volunteers. We have three Khmer engineers, including two women and one man. We have one male program manager, and I am the country manager. Each organization needs to set a quota. It is important.

Second, women need to strengthen their capacity to take a leadership position. They need to have knowledge and commitment to perform their job. This is important. If women want to get a leadership position, they need to have capacity. When the opportunity is facilitated through a quota system, they need to upgrade their capacity to get that opportunity.

Q: Do you have messages for other women and girls who are listening to this podcast?

Many:  First, women need to strengthen their capacity. Capacity is the essential ingredient to fulfill our responsibility. When employers recruit us, they place us based on our capacity. We need to strengthen our capacity to take a leadership position. We cannot wait for others to provide us a leadership position. We need to stand up for ourselves. We need to tell ourselves that we can do what men can do. This is how we can participate in the development, not just only the WASH sector.

We need to have strong communication skills both in Khmer and English. It is not just only speaking skills; it includes your attitude. It is also about communication via the internet. Social media is available for us, but we need to take advantage of it. Don’t use it for no reason. We have many social media platforms and mobile applications. We have to be selective. Don’t invest time with Tik Tok and other useless platforms. It consumes our time.

If you want to earn income and support your family, you must strengthen your capacity via education and reading. There are many useful documents available on social media. If we use it with no purpose, it will not serve us anything. If we take it as a learning platform, we can take advantage of social media platforms.

Lastly, networking is also essential. We need to be adaptable.

Q: Thank you so much for joining us.

Many: Thank you so much.

This interview 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.

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