Sovattha Neou: Don’t say ‘no’ to opportunity

Sovattha Neou is the Country Director of CARE Cambodia. She has worked on community development, good governance, water, sanitation, and hygiene, and gender equality with the nonprofit sector in Cambodia for almost two decades. Prior to her role at CARE Cambodia, Sovattha has served as the Executive Director of WaterSHED for nearly four years.

Sovattha Neou’s interview with Next Women Generation

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

Q: When did you start working on community development?

Sovattha: I began working on community development in 2003, right after graduation.

Q: Why were you interested in working on community development?

Sovattha: I studied veterinarian major. People who study this major work with the community. We do not think about working in the banking sector. We can think about working on agriculture or agriculture production.

Q: When did you start working on water and sanitation?

Sovattha: When I started working in 2003, I worked as a translator for two Dutch people. They worked on water, sanitation, and hygiene. We worked with jar vendors and jar producers. I started working on issues related to clean water then. Later, I’ve worked with Oxfam on water, sanitation, and hygiene issues when we have a natural disaster. Then, I joined WaterSHED.

Indeed, I did not join WaterSHED because of the water, sanitation, and hygiene sector. I read the job announcement at WaterSHED. This organization allowed me to use my creativity to work there. I was very interested in that position. I wanted to work in an organization that allowed me to use my creativity.

When I was interviewed for the executive director position at WaterSHED, I was very interested in how WaterSHED asked the sub-national authority to pay for their training. The interview panel told me that WaterSHED could convince the community to buy their latrine. They asked me, ‘do you think we can sell latrine to the community?’ I responded, ‘no, we can’t.’ I told them that I’ve worked with many organizations, mainly providing latrine to the community for free. The interview panels said that WaterSHED could convince people to pay for their training and buy latrine. Since that day of the interview, I told myself that I must work there. I wanted to know how WaterSHED convinced beneficiaries to buy their toilet and convinced commune or village chiefs to pay for their training.

When I assumed my role as the Executive Director there, I’ve learned that our work positively impacted the community, especially women. But, we have low women’s participation in water, sanitation, and hygiene at the national level.

Q: Based on your observation, why do we have lower women’s participation at the national level?

Sovattha: Advocacy role at the national level is the role of project or program manager or executive director. Few women are holding these roles. Women holding leadership positions in some organizations faced technical challenges. The technical factor prevents women’s engagement. Some women think they cannot work on it because it requires specialized skills such as building a latrine. They do not have these technical skills. This is probably a reason why we have low women’s participation at the national level.

I think ‘opportunity’ is also another factor. I observed that women holding leadership positions in the public sector remain low. Thus, the opportunity for women to advance their careers in the water, sanitation, and hygiene sector is limited.

Q: Why do technical skills and opportunities become the challenges for women to participate in the water, sanitation, and hygiene sector?

Sovattha: I used to mentor a small group of female students studying water engineering at a university in Phnom Penh. One girl told me that her lecturer said nothing to do after graduation from a water engineering major. She was so demotivated after hearing that. I want to reflect that some people in Cambodia think they can work in only their study field. They are not open to see other options. For instance, water engineering is not an easy major. But, it doesn’t mean that you can work only on construction. They can also advocate for sustainability and environmentally friendly construction in the water, sanitation, and hygiene sector. There are many things to do. But some people in the field discourage those girls who study water engineering.

She needs to spend five years studying water engineering. If she is not encouraged by her family and lecturers, it is not strange that some girls give up or lose their vision. Encouragement and employment opportunity are essential to encourage both men and women to participate in the field.

Q: You have mentored girls who study water engineering. Based on your observation, do culture, and social norms encourage women to work in this sector?

Sovattha: I don’t think women don’t like field visits. For instance, I studied veterinarian major. My parents didn’t want me to study it because it required fieldwork. So, we need to observe what young people enjoy doing. Another example is those young people who study media and communication major. They must carry a camera, tripod, and other filming equipment to the field. They need to take good videos and photos. If this is what they like, I don’t think carrying this equipment is a challenge. It is similar to water engineering. If they want to go to the field, it is their talent. If we support and encourage women, women can do whatever they enjoy doing. I have a young sister working as a civil engineer. She is the only woman among her co-workers. She enjoys working. I don’t think field visit is a factor that they want to give up.

Q: What motivates you to work on water, sanitation, and hygiene?

Sovattha: Water and sanitation are essential for our life. We need clean water, a lavatory, and water to wash our hands. We cannot live without all of these. These are the basic needs of people. I was confident that what I had done impacted people and beneficiaries significantly. Our impact was more than what we expected. This encouraged us to work harder. After we closed our mission in Cambodia, we left know-how skills and strategies for others to follow.

Q: You did not have technical skills in water, sanitation, and hygiene. How have you started your work as a leader in the field?

Sovattha: I learned many things when I first started with WaterSHED because I did not have technical skills such as latrine construction, water purification, and faecal sludge management. These were new to me at that time. WaterSED focused on research and development. It was too in-depth for me to understand. I was open to let my stakeholders know what I needed to learn. My stakeholders supported me. I have learned a lot from my colleagues at WaterSHED and other stakeholders working on water, sanitation, and hygiene.

It is easier now. We have a Women in WASH Network. If I return to the water, sanitation, and hygiene sector again, there is a network to support me. This network supports women with both soft and hard skills, especially how to construct latrines, manage faecal sludge, guiding principle, hygiene market, and water quality. Women in Wash Network is already prepared to support women who begin working in the water, sanitation, and hygiene field.

Q: I want to ask about your childhood. How your family and surrounding encouraged you to be who you are today?

Sovattha: My father and mother were educated. I have only two siblings. My mother saw education as an opportunity to overcome poverty. When I was young, my family was middle class. But things changed after my father got traffic accident. My family’s financial situation was affected by it. All household responsibilities fell on my mother’s shoulders. My mother worked hard to support our education and take care of my father. I have learned from my family situation that a family may face complex conditions if there is a lack of a strong woman to support the family when a crisis hits. This adversary encouraged me to study harder to help my mother.

I want to be a woman like my mother. I want to be a strong woman who can support my family. We cannot know what will happen in the future. For instance, what happens if we are not pretty anymore and our husbands have a new girlfriend or mistress; if I don’t know how to earn money, what happens to my family. This is a life lesson for my sister and me. Therefore, we studied hard so that we could support our family and our parents.

I am fortunate. My husband encourages me to study more and work on what I enjoy. I want to tell young girls that please rethink if they’re going to quit school. When you are married at 16 or 18, what will happen to your children if your husband leaves you or crisis hits? Your children will need to drop out because you don’t have money to finance their studies. How do you manage that? First, we need to prepare ourselves. Husband and wife are like a pair of bird’s wings. If a bird flies with one wing, it may move slowly. A bird flies faster with both wings. We need to prepare ourselves. Then, if something happens, our family can still survive.

Q: Have you heard or encountered conversations about the roles of women and men in society?

Sovattha: In Cambodia, it is not strange to hear it. My neighbors told my mother that I was not a fortunate woman because I still worked while pregnant. My mother said to me about it. I told my mother that ‘I still work even if I have a millionaire or high-ranking government official because I spent many years for education. Why would I stay at home? It is not beneficial for our family and country. If I can work, I go to work. If I cannot work, I will take leave to stay at home. My organization allows me to take leave, but I think I can manage to work. I am pregnant. It doesn’t mean that I am a sick person. I just have a baby in my tummy. My work doesn’t require physical exercise.”

Sometimes, we need to challenge other’s comments. If we enjoy working, we just do it. For example, my daughter always tells me that she wants to open a cake bakery. She wants to have a creative style for her cake. But some people told her that a cake bakery is not good enough; she should study skills that I did, or her godmother did. My daughter cried and said to me that she wanted to run a cake bakery. I told her that ‘she can do what she likes; the most important thing is to do the best.’ I will support my daughter to do whatever she likes, even if it is a dangerous occupation such as a pilot. My other child wants to be a painter. I support my child as well. Our society should stop setting the image of success for our children. Sometimes, it is not what our children like. Thus, they don’t have the creativity to do the best job.

Q: Do you have any messages for young women to engage in the water, sanitation, and hygiene sector?

Sovattha: I want them to see that the water, sanitation, and hygiene sector is for everyone. It is for all of us. They don’t need to study water engineering, water and sanitation, or public health to work in the sector. I studied veterinarian major, but I’ve worked on water, sanitation, and hygiene. The most important thing is open to learning about it. We have a Women and WASH Network that supports and encourages you with both soft and hard skills. If you have an opportunity to be promoted as a leader in an organization, don’t say no. Say ‘yes’ to it; the job will teach us. I have met some women who were promoted to leadership positions; many of them rejected the offer. Men are different. If we give them the opportunity, they will take it and ask us to teach them. I want women to accept any offers for leadership positions. They can reflect on their strengths and weaknesses and ask for capacity building to do the job better. Don’t say ‘no’ to opportunity.

Q: Thank you very much for joining us today.

Sovattha: Thank you very much for having me.

This interview is part of the HerRoles Campaign, co-organized by the WaterAid Cambodia and Next Women Generation. HerRoles Campaign aims to raise public awareness of women’s roles and leadership in the WASH sector in Cambodia.

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