Finding alternatives to the factory floor

Half a million Cambodian women leave their homes and families every day to work in garment factories. We Effect’s new project is empowering women to find other, more sustainable sources of income.

The people that make the shoes we are wearing are pouring out from truck after truck after truck. A thousand young women and a few men. Crammed like animals, they have travelled through the break of dawn, in search of survival. Their salaries are less than 200 dollars a month, but that’s more than nothing, and maybe more than mum and dad are making. They are the daughters and sons of farmers.

We Effect work on gender equality and rural development in Cambodia, not life in the 626 garment factories. But to understand why so many women are fleeing the rice fields, one also needs to be here, at the gates of ”Prime Shoes”, in the dust of a thousand pairs of flip-flops.

The factories leave a lot to wish for. Decent wages and working conditions where women are safe from sexual abuse to name a few. But the factories are only part of the problem. As in so many parts of the world it starts with lack of prospects at home.

– For me, there was no alternative. My families land was very small and did not give enough for me to live off. I have now worked in factories for ten years, says Tum Soeung, 28, who just spent the last 11 hours quality checking over a 1000 pair of shoes.

She shares her story with hundreds of thousands of women in Cambodia. The cultural norms that unfairly construct the role of women as housewives and mothers remain strong in Cambodian society. Social norms are shutting many women out from being leaders, entrepreneurs and earning a living in farming, the main source of income in country.

– Men are doing most of the paid farming work around her. All my women friends work in factories.

A big challenge is that the factories are paying much more than most farming jobs, but only for a few years. The second you are pregnant, sick, or not just working hard enough, you are out for good.

Out of the 163 dollars Tum Soeungs makes every month, 20 dollars is spent on the truck that takes her to work every morning at 5 am, and returns every evening at 7 pm. She can only save 3-5 dollars a month, she says. Her husband Nov Sitta does odd jobs on farming and construction.

– I dream about running a small store with my husband. And to breed chickens and grow vegetables. But I have no experience or training, I really want to be an entrepreneur in my village.

We Effect is now starting a new 5-year programme in Cambodia, that is designed to support women like Tum Soeung. A total of 40 000 people will get training on entrepreneurship, leadership, micro financing, and improved farming skills.

There are no simple solutions. But if women could get the same access to education as men, also own and farm land, also be leaders in their communities, also earn a living where they live – they would have an alternative to standing on the back of a truck every morning, working 11 hours, six days a week.

The new We Effect programme in Cambodia is funded mainly by the Swedish government and aim to support 20 000 women and 20 000 men, in Kampong Thom, Siem Reap, Otdarmeanchey, Preshvihear and Stung Treng.

– Gender equality is not only the right thing to do; it is also a good return on investment on agriculture. It could help dismiss extreme poverty and tackle hunger, says Mr. Pan Sopheap, Executive Director of Farmer and Nature Net, one of the implementing partners of the project.

Facts: Rice, garments and gender inequality

  • Three million people live in extreme poverty in Cambodia 90 percent of them live in rural areas. 60 percent of Cambodians live off rice cultivation, the by far biggest source of income in the country. Rice crops account for almost 80 percent of all cultivable land.
  • Garment factories stand for 16 percent of the GDP (2013). Women garment workers earn less on average than their male colleagues. The average basic salary (in 2015) of female workers in the industry was USD 145 per month, compared to USD 161 for male workers.
  • Research shows that while approximately 85 percent of the more than 600 000 workers in the Cambodian apparel sector are women, they are underrepresented in leadership roles. Under 4 percent of the female garment worker population holds a leader role.
  • A report from the organisation Better Work says that 36 per cent of interviewed workers were concerned with sexual harassment in their factories. Also, women face challenges at home, not being able to live up to norms and expectations on their roles as primary care providers in their homes.