Social norms are the challenges for women to participate in the WASH sector

Inadequate clean water and sanitation in Cambodia’s rural area adversely impact people and the community, including diarrhea, malnutrition, and other infectious diseases. In addition, Somountha Mith, Deputy Director of the Department of Rural Water Supply of the Ministry of Rural Development, says that these issues affect children’s education in a rural areas, especially girls.

Somountha was appointed to be the Deputy Director of the Department of Rural Water Supply in mid-2020, during the COVID-19 outbreak. Somountha says that she has not carried out many activities during this pandemic. However, she has participated in designing commune safe water plans and providing capacity building to the staff of communes and the Provincial Office of Rural Development.

Low women’s participation in the WASH sector

Even though women play essential roles in the WASH sector, women’s participation remains low. Somountha observes that social norms, lack of opportunity, and low self-confidence are challenges for women to involve in the WASH sector.

Social norms are rooted in Cambodian society, setting roles for men and women. The conservative norms do not encourage women to participate in social development. Somountha has heard many words that discouraged women from engaging in social activities. “Some people said that women can’t turn around the kitchen,” she says. “Why women want to be leaders or participate in commune meetings; they should take care of children at home,” she adds. Somountha also heard that “women are weak so they cannot hold higher positions; [women] are often sick and pregnant so that they take leaves often.”

Somoutha says that the opportunity is another challenge for women. “Women lose the opportunity to take some positions. Because of social norms, women lose the opportunity to study and work,” she says. “The most important thing is that women are not able to show their capacity as men,” she adds.

Lack of encouragement from stakeholders discourages women from participating or take leadership positions in the WASH sector. Somountha says that women spend most of their time on domestic chores and unpaid care work at home, preventing them from participating in the WASH sector. “Women are busy with looking after children, preparing food, cleaning the house, and taking care of family well-being,” she says.

Being a working mother in the WASH sector

Somountha was born in Takeo province. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business management in 2002 in Phnom Penh and a master’s degree in sustainable development in 2008 in Thailand. She has worked on gender and natural resource management for almost two decades in Cambodia.

Somountha began her work with the Department of Rural Water Supply in mid-2020. The leadership position doesn’t challenge Somountha because she receives support from her line manager and colleagues. Yet, unpaid care work and domestic chores place Somountha in a challenging situation as a working mother. Somountha says that taking care of young children while working from home during this pandemic is a double burden.

Balancing between work and unpaid care work is uneasy. Somountha goes to the office for necessary circumstances during COVID-19. She prefers to work from home so that she can look after the children, clean the house, and prepare food while working from home. “Sometimes children asked me to help them with homework while I was working,” she says. “When I assisted my children with their study, I missed my work. But, if I focused on my work, I left my children behind,” she adds. Somountha also shares that sometimes her children get distracted from studying when she ignores them. “Sometimes my children paused their study and played games because they think their mother didn’t care about them. So, it adversely impacts my children,” she says.

Somountha says that sometimes she didn’t have enough time to prepare food for her children, which affected their study schedule. “Sometimes I am a speaker or presenter in the meeting or training, so I can’t walk out of the computer,” she says. “Then, I don’t have time to teach my children or prepare their food,” she adds. Somountha shares that she brings the computer to the kitchen if the meeting has not required her to do the presentation. “COVID-19 severely impacts women, especially working mothers,” she says.

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

From Somountha’s experience working with national and sub-national levels, there is a need to have a national policy and practical implementation from national to sub-national levels to promote gender more women in the WASH sector. Somountha says that women’s participation is essential in policy implementation. She adds that stakeholders need to strengthen women’s and girls’ technical and soft skills related to WASH.

Somountha stresses that women are capable of doing what men can do. “Women and girls must participate in promoting WASH in their community,” she says. “Don’t think that you can’t participate because you are busy; don’t think that you don’t have enough knowledge to lead,” she adds. Somountha also encourages women and girls to voice their concerns in the WASH sector. “Women and girls must speak out about their needs,” she says. “If women and girls do not voice their concerns, their issues won’t be addressed,” she adds.

Somountha encourages men to share household responsibilities so that women can free up time to participate in social activities. She also encourages men to be open to a new way of working that values men and women equally for the same value job.

This article 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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