Sokhadeva Chanthet: Water, sanitation, and hygiene is essential for people’s well-being

Sokhadeva Chanthet is the Deputy Director of the Department of Rural Health Care of the Ministry of Rural Development. She has worked on water, sanitation, and hygiene since 2016. Sokhadeva holds a master’s degree in public health from the University of Melbourne.

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

Q: When did you start working on water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH)?

Sokhadeva: I started working in the WASH sector in 2016 after graduating with a master’s degree in Australia. I have worked in the Department of Rural Health Care of the Ministry of Rural Development in 2016. So I have worked on WASH with the department for about 5 or 6 years.

I began with advocacy project on the importance of WASH at the sub-national level. This work allowed me to work closely with national and sub-national levels and other development partners in the WASH sector. In addition, this work taught me about the necessity of the WASH sector and promoting public health and well-being. These days, I am responsible for managing data of the WASH sector.

Q: What motivates you to work in the WASH sector?

Sokhadeva: First, I was appointed to work in the Department of Rural Health Care. What motivates me to work in the field for many years is the opportunity to develop myself. As I mentioned earlier, this sector is new for me. My background is in public health. I am also a pharmacist. The work in the WASH sector is more of engineering, which is not my background. However, it can relate to my public health background.

I have seen that the job I have been doing for these years allows me to develop myself and build networks with development partners. I can apply what I have learned from school to this work. Moreover, empowering the community is a pleasant job for me. I want to see that people living in the community can access clean water and the lavatory.

If people can access clean water and restroom, we are not concern about the lack of clean water or latrine when we travel. This is what motivates me to work in the WASH sector.

Q: What have you seen about women’s participation in the WASH sector?

Sokhadeva: Women’s participation in this sector is limited at all levels, including leadership and technical levels. For instance, I was appointed to join a meeting with Clean Water Working Group. In the meeting, the majority of participants were men; there were only two women. In addition, the number of students studying WASH or water management remains low. I used to accompany my niece to apply for this major. I observed that fewer students were pursuing the subject, especially women. It is probably because of technical aspects. So, the number of women in the WASH sector remains limited.

Photo provided by Sokhadeva Chanthet

Q: Based on your observation, why does the number of women in the WASH sector remain low?

Sokhadeva: It is social norms that people think that WASH is a technical work; it is a men’s job. This is a gender stereotype. Indeed, both men and women can do it. We still have limited knowledge of WASH and the importance of participation in the sector. We need to advocate to increase participation, starting from the university level. We need to encourage women to study [subjects related to WASH] and work [in the field]. Jobs in the WASH sector require technical skills. Sometimes we work in the lab and visit the community. Some women are concern when going on field trips. Some women do not travel much. They can travel, but they still have some problems with their safety.

Q: How important is it to have more women and girls participate in the WASH sector?

Sokhadeva: Women’s and girls’ participation is influential in the sector. If we talk about the roles of women and girls in a family, they are responsible for water management and hygiene in their household. Thus, women and girls clearly understand the importance of water and hygiene. Women’s participation in the sector can promote gender equality and address issues related to a lack of restrooms. If we look at research, women, and girls are responsible for collecting water. Nowadays, women and girls around the world use 200 million hours to collect water.

If we talk about sanitation and hygiene, a lack of sanitation and hygiene affects women and girls. In addition, they face challenges such as menstrual hygiene and self-safety from violence and harassment. Thus, women’s participation is essential because women understand women’s issues. In addition, it can address issues related to lack of access to clean water and latrine for women.

Q: How to promote women’s and girls’ participation in the sector?

Sokhadeva: As I mentioned earlier, we have fewer women studying subjects related to WASH in the university. [We] should encourage women to study subjects related to WASH. [We] can support women in studying majors related to WASH, such as providing them with scholarships or subsidy incentives. Another thing is to offer them an internship opportunity. When they have the chance to intern or work in the field, they can understand more about the importance of WASH and build their confidence to participate in the sector. We can also promote gender equality in our workplace, ensuring that we have gender balance.

Moreover, we can work on raising awareness of gender stereotypes in the WASH sector. As I mentioned earlier, working in the WASH sector requires strong physical health because we traveled to provinces to construct the well or test water quality. We need to raise awareness that this is not a men’s job; this job is for men and women.

Photo provided by Sokhadeva Chanthet

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

Sokhadeva: I hope we can have more women in the leadership and technical levels. The community can access clean water and the lavatory.

Q: I want to ask you about your childhood. How did your surroundings motivate you to work in the field?

Sokhadeva: As I mentioned earlier, WASH is new to me. My background is in pharmacy and public health. Later on, my childhood reflection also motivates me to continue working in the sector. When I was young, I didn’t have access to a latrine when I visited my hometown. When I promote access to clean water and toilets, I want to see community can access them. I want to see that every house has a restroom and access to clean water. I don’t want to see people defecate everywhere. When I was young, my home was around Wat Phnom. In the 1990s, we didn’t have proper toilets. People defecated near the park.

The public park in the middle of Phnom Penh should be where we relaxed, but there were smells of faeces. So I thought, ‘if we have a public toilet, no one will defecate in the public part, and we can enjoy the public park.’

Q: You have studied public health in Australia. What motivates you to continue your study in public health?

Sokhadeva: I enjoy studying. I want to learn more. When I finished my bachelor’s degree in pharmacy, I was still young. I wanted to continue studying. I chose public health because it has wider employment opportunities. Also, I want to promote public health because I have seen limitations in the public health sector. There were many things to do. For instance, working in WASH interacts with many elements, including technical skills, leadership, and public health.

Q: How about your family? Do they encourage you to work in the WASH sector because women face challenges when traveling to provinces?

Sokhadeva: I receive so much support from my family even though my family is a bit strict. My family restricts my travel. But, traveling for work to provinces always received support from family. I can use my car or travel with other people on the team.

Q: I have heard about social norms that set what jobs are for men or women. Have you experienced that?

Sokhadeva: I face this challenge as well. For instance, when I finished high school, I wanted to study technology because I liked it. But, my mother said, it was a men’s job. So she told me to study pharmacy. I also wanted to major in pharmacy, so that I studied it. I also studied some courses related to Information Technology at that time.

Even though I experienced some forms of gender stereotypes in choosing a study major, I still managed to do what I enjoyed. I can overcome it. For instance, job [in the WASH sector] is not about men’s or women’s employment. Men or women can do it if we work hard.

Q: What do you think about the number of women holding leadership positions?  

Sokhadeva: We have a lower number of women holding a leadership position in the WASH sector. It is about 1%. However, if we look at NGOs, we see more women holding leadership positions such as country manager or project manager. So in the public sector, we need to encourage women to take leadership positions.

Q: Why the lower number of women holding a leadership position in the public sector?

Sokhadeva: Women do not want to take complicated responsibilities because they have household responsibilities like taking care of children or supporting children in their studies. A leadership position can make them busier at work and distances them from household responsibility. That’s why women are not able to take a leadership positions. Another issue is about their confidence. When they work in the public sector, they work 8 hours a day to have more time with their family.

Q: When talking about WASH, have stakeholders discussed issues faced by women in the WASH sector?

Sokhadeva: We have discussed it. We have plans and strategies to promote gender equality. But, it takes time, and it requires women’s participation. We have done it step by step. But, women’s participation is limited. It needs time to advocate and raise awareness on gender stereotypes to encourage women to patriciate in the sector. So, even though we have talked discussed it, it takes time to address these issues.

Q: What are plans or strategies to promote women’s participation in the WASH sector?

Sokhadeva: We have documents on promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment. It focuses on all sectors, not just only the WASH sector. It is related to Cambodia Sustainable Development Goals #5, focusing on achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment by 2030. It also mentioned eliminating all forms of discrimination against women and girls. Promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment is a crucial step to achieve sustainable development.

Moreover, women’s empowerment in education is supported by many legal and policy frameworks. For example, the law on education recognized equality rights to primary education for men and women.

Rectangular strategy IV illustrates the government’s effort to promote gender equality and reduce gender disparities in all sectors, especially in education and vocational training.

The National Strategic Development Plan (2019-2023) plans to increase women’s science, technology, and engineering enrollment. As I mentioned earlier, the WASH sector needs engineers, creativity, and math.

Neary Rattanak IV aims to promote women’s access to education and vocational training.

In the education sector, the National Education Strategic Plan (2014-2018) and Education Vision 2030 of the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport continues to address gender-related issues at all levels, such as providing scholarship and build women’s capacity. Moreover, Komar Metry in 2007 aimed to ensure school safe and security to protect children.

Q: What are the challenges that you face in the WASH sector?

Sokhadeva: I went to provinces with men because we have fewer women. Some women told me they could not go to the province with me because they cared for their families. I have to convince my family as well because they do not want me to travel much. They concern about my safety. So I need to convince them to let me go to the province and work with men.

Q: Do you have any messages for women and girls listening to this podcast?

Sokhadeva: I encourage women and girls to take the opportunity to develop themselves.

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