Somountha Mith is the Deputy Director of the Department of Rural Water Supply of the Ministry of Rural Development. Somountha received a master’s degree from Chaing Mai University. She has worked on gender and natural resource management, climate change adaptation and disaster management, Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH), and international development. Somountha commits to promoting women’s leadership and gender equality through her career.
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[Below is the translation of the interview which is edited for clarity.]
Q: Can you tell us about your journey in the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) sector?
Somountha: I started in 2020. I transferred from another department of the Ministry of Rural Development to the Department of Rural Water Supply last year. I started working in the sector during COVID-19. I have not done many activities, though.
Q: What motivated you to transfer to the Department of Rural Water Supply?
Somountha: I see that rural water supply and sanitation are crucial work to develop the rural area. The MRD works on rural development. We see that rural water supply remains limited. So I see this is an opportunity for me to work with the Department of Rural Water Supply.
Q: Could you share with us what you are doing in the WASH sector?
Somountha: The WASH sector is new for me. I started working in the sector in 2020 during the COVID-19. I have not done many activities. We mainly work on a commune safe water plan. I try to have more women’s participation in designing this plan. In addition, we provide capacity building to commune council members. The provincial offices of our ministry also work to promote women’s participation.
Q: How important is women’s and girls’ participation in the WASH sector?
Somountha: Women and girls are responsible for food security in the family, including collecting water, cooking, and taking care of children and the elderly. They are responsible for sanitation and hygiene for the family. However, their participation in the WASH sector remains limited. This is an issue that needs to be addressed.
Q: What have you observed about women’s participation in the community, provincial offices, and national levels?
Somountha: Women’s participation in eh WASH sector is essential. However, their participation is limited.
Q: Could you tell us why women’s and girls’ participation in the WASH sector remain low?
Somountha: Social norms are rooted in our society. Cambodian society set norms for women and girls. For instance, Cambodian women must have this or that attitude, responsibility, and role. This is the perception of people that women must study this or that significantly. Some people think that women won’t be a leader because they can’t turn around the kitchen. Some believe that you are a woman—why do you want to participate in the commune meeting; you should cook food and take care of children at home. Some people think that women are weak; women cannot be commune chiefs or work in higher positions. Women have domestic chore responsibilities. If they have a higher position or commune chief, they will take leave often because of children’s sickness or pregnancy or this or that. Social norms make women lose the opportunity for education and employment. The most important thing is that women cannot show their capacity as men do.
On the other hand, women do not value themselves. They lack confidence. They think they are busy with children, health and sanitation, and food security at home. They believe that they don’t have time to work outside of the house. Some women said they could not work as commune chiefs or team leaders of water user groups because they were busy with household responsibilities. They said they don’t have enough knowledge and know-how so that they cannot do the job.
In short, social norms and women’s lack of confidence prevent women from participating in the WASH sector.
Q: As a leader, what challenges do you face?
Somountha: I don’t have any challenges at my workplace. The director of my department gives me many opportunities even though I am new to the workplace and a woman. This is encouragement from my leadership. Sometimes, I feel that I am a woman who works in the technical field. But, my colleagues, both men, and women treat me equally.
Q: How about women’s roles to take care of family and children that you mentioned earlier. Have you faced these challenges, especially during this COVID-19?
Somountha: Yes, I face severe challenges during this COVID-19. First, I have children at home who study online. Second, I have three young children. I cannot isolate them while they are learning from home. During COVID-19, I go to the office for necessary cases only. If it is not required, I work from home. While working from home, I can work, teach my children, and cooking.
It is challenging for us. Sometimes, we have urgent tasks while children also need us. For instance, they call us and say, ‘they don’t understand this or that.’ Like it or not, we need to drop our work and help the children. So, it disrupts our work. Sometimes we think our work is more important because it is urgent. When children ask us questions, we can only reply, ‘I’m busy.’ Sometimes children play games when you give them an ‘I’m busy’ answer, or they do something else because they think their mother doesn’t care about them. This is the impact on our children when we don’t have enough time for them.
Another issue is food. As I mentioned earlier, cooking and cleaning are our responsibilities. We are working, but we need to make sure that we have food for the family. Sometimes we are busy, but we must make sure that food is available for children. During COVID-19, meetings, and training move to online platforms. Some meetings are essential because we need to be a speaker or presenter. Thus, we cannot walk out of the computer to teach our children at home or preparing their food. Since COVID-19, I have been busy with Zoom meetings. This is because there have been so many meetings on Zoom lately. If I am a just participant in the meeting, I sometimes bring my computer to the kitchen to prepare food. If I am a speaker in the meeting, I am not able to cook during the meeting. Thus, it delays my children’s time to get food which affects their studies.
In short, COVID-19 affects women, especially working mothers.
Q: What should be done to promote women’s and girls’ participation in the WASH sector?
Somountha: I want to go back to what I raised earlier. Two main issues prevent women and girls from participating in the WASH sector. First, it is about social norms embedded in our culture that women cannot participate in anything. Second, women do not value themselves; they think they are busy, cannot do it, and do not have confidence in themselves. These are the main challenges for women and girls to participate in the WASH sector.
To encourage women and girls to participate in the sector, we need to have the policy to promote gender equality. After we have a national policy, we need to implement the policy from national to sub-national levels. Social norms are rooted in our beliefs. It is not easy to change; it takes time. To implement the procedure, we need to encourage women and girls to participate in the sector. Women do not trust themselves because social norms teach us that ‘women cannot do this or that; women cannot hold higher position; women belong home.’ So, we need to encourage women and girls. In the meantime, we need to build both soft and hard skills, especially in the water supply field. In the water supply field, we need technical skills. But, we should also provide capacity building on soft skills such as leadership, community, negotiation, etc. So, they can be flexible to work in the WASH sector.
Another thing is opportunity. To promote gender equality, we need to give women a chance. As I mentioned earlier, they are not confident in themselves, and culture and social norms pressure them. Then, they don’t want to participate in the WASH sector. Thus, we need to give them the opportunity and encourage them.
We need to invest more in women. For instance, when we do something at the sub-national level, it will benefit both women and men. But I need to invest more in women because we want to increase women’s participation. When talking about building capacity, we need to have a particular program for women as well. If we talk about having time to participate in any events, women have less time than men to join the events. As I mentioned earlier, women are responsible for food security in the household and taking care of their children and elder at home. So we need to find an appropriate time to engage with women. Appreciate time to engage with women is our extra investment in women and girls. Another investment is skills and knowledge. We want to achieve equity. Women and men can access resources equitably.
Q: Do you have any messages for women and girls who listen to this podcast?
Somountha: The WASH sector is essential. In Cambodia’s context, we lack clean water in the rural area, which affects health and education. Health and education are closely linked to poverty. Lack of clean water causes health problems such as stunting, diarrhea, malnutrition, and other infectious diseases. Children can get poor education outcomes because of their health conditions. Some children drop out of school. In the rural area, most dropouts are girls. If people face these issues, they increase their spending on water and health. When our health condition is not good, it affects our employment and income. Women are responsible for food security so that women don’t have time to work or earn income. In short, water, sanitation, and hygiene are essential for women and girls in the rural area. Women and girls need to participate in the sector actively. They need to voice themselves to ensure that their voice is heard and that stakeholders address their needs. If they do not participate, issues that they face will be discussed or addressed.
Another message is about self-confidence. We need to be confident. We can do what men can do. Please don’t think that ‘I can’t do it because I am busy. I can’t do it because I don’t know it. I can’t lead others because I have not done that before.’ I want to delete, ‘I can’t.’ We can do what men can do.
I also have a message for men. When you hear, ‘she can do it,’ please don’t ignore domestic chores borne by women. When women participate in community development, household responsibilities become a burden for them. First, men need to learn how to encourage women. Second, men should be open to accepting the new way of working—give the same credit to men and women for the same value job. Third, men need to learn how to share household responsibilities, including cooking, washing, cleaning, and taking care of children and the elderly. We need men’s participation in unpaid care and domestic chores so that women can free up some time to participate in social development. Then, women can build their capacity and increase their knowledge. Thus, women can earn income to support the family. When women earn income, we can contribute to poverty reduction.
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.