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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Tough life for a woman on the road

Tough life for a woman on the road

Chris Fontaine and Soly Vannpok meet up with Chen Vat - one of the

few women moto-taxi drivers in the capital - to talk about her life and livelihood.

CHEN Vat's heavily-lined face reflects the hardship she and her country have faced

over the last two and a half decades, but like Cambodia, she has battled against

the odds and survived.

The 56-year-old Vat has the distinction of being one of apparently only three female

moto-taxi drivers in Phnom Penh, an occupation that can be hazardous, especially

by Western standards. But she faces additional obstacles as a woman in a traditionally

male-only profession. Not only must she be extra careful when accepting fares, Vat

said she is continually at a physical disadvantage to her male counterparts.

"With the men it is different because men can drive through traffic faster,

and they also have more energy than women," Vat said.

She appears to be at a disadvantage financially as well. Unwilling to cash in on

higher night-time fares because of the added danger of being robbed, Vat does not

make as much money as her male counterparts, who said they average about 10,000 riel

a day in the dry season and about 8,000 riel a day during the rainy months.

By comparison, Vat said she makes about 2,000 less riel a day.

"On a good day I make 7,000-8,000 riel, but that does not include money spent

on fuel and lunch," she said.

Although she has no husband or immediate family, Vat struggles to keep the bills

paid. "The money I make is just enough to make ends meet. If my moto breaks

there is no money to repair it."

Trying to make ends meet is how Vat got to be a taxi driver, a job she said she does

not really enjoy compared to work she has done in the past. In 1962 she got her first

job working in a soap factory. The political instability since then has made it difficult

for Vat to keep steady work, but after three years at another factory job with the

Ministry of Industry, she was able to retire briefly in 1982.

"After my retirement I started selling fruits, vegetables and fish, but I barely

could recover the cost of doing business," she said. "In 1992 I started

to work as a moto-taxi driver, but to make a living driving the moto is not better

than selling."

Safety is Vat's main concern, not necessarily from robbers, but from traffic accidents.

Seven months ago, she was involved in a serious accident that scarred her physically

and emotionally.

"While I drove on one side of (Monivong Blvd.), a man on a big motorcycle drove

out from a side street and hit me, throwing me off my moto."

Vat's leg was broken in the crash and she was unable to work for two months while

she recuperated in a hospital. A metal pin still supports the fractured bone. She

said she longs for the steady pay and health benefits of her factory job, but she

feels trapped in the taxi profession because of what she has invested in the job.

Relatives and friends loaned her the money to buy her moto, and she is currently

paying back her debt to them.

Many male moto-taxi drivers were surprised when they heard about Vat and had their

own theories on why she does not make as much money as they do.

"I think it's so strange. Maybe she is the only one in the whole city,"

said Kong Ratta, who has been a taxi driver for the past month. "I think driving

is more dangerous for the women... and customers like to go with the men because

they are stronger than women."

Teng Hor, a three-year moto-taxi veteran who lives in Kandal province, said there

may also be social barriers that keep women from pursuing the profession.

"Maybe the wo-men are weak and they fear the customers will look down on them,"

Hor said. "I think (Vat) is old so she does not fear these things."

Vat does not perceive any prejudice when looking for customers, but she did say that

male taxi drivers sometimes feel threatened by her and give her a hard time.

"It's up to us, the drivers, to attract customers. When one customer comes,

and I see him first, I ask, 'Moto?' - then he will come with me," Vat said.

"If other drivers ask first the customer will go with them.

"(But) when the customer comes and he prefers that I take him, the male drivers

want to beat me up sometimes, but I keep patient and stay away from them."

Whether the difference between male and female moto-taxi drivers is real or perceived,

the animosity directed towards Vat offers a window into the state of women's rights

in Cambodian society. Although women hold constitutional equality, with the rights

to vote and run for office, they still have a long struggle ahead of them for social


A Khmer woman's traditional place has been in the home, cooking, cleaning and raising

the family. Some women do hold jobs, but they are usually limited to clerical work,

selling goods in the market or waitressing and other service industry jobs. Equal

opportunity to an education will be a big step in closing the gap between men and

women in the job market, said Seng Kan, a program manager at the Ministry of Education.

Basic education is available to Khmer children, especially in Phnom Penh, but families

living in a country that is slowly rebuilding itself after 25 years of war often

send only their sons to school because they feel the women are more valuable around

the house, Kan said.

But the future for women does look brighter as the Ministry of Education strives

to provide equal access to education for all Cambodians by the year 2000. Kan said

the goal is attainable, but will most likely be delayed by budget constraints.

"We're trying to build up an education plan to promote girls not only to enroll

in school, but to ensure they stay in school for as long as the boys," Kan said.

"(But) if you look at the national budget, there is not much money for education.

We hope in the next few years they will allocate more to education."

Whether the government decides to invest in an education for all of its children

or not, the move will be too late for women like Chen Vat, who as a child only attended

school for three years.

Vat knows what it takes to survive in one of the world's poorest nations. Through

her own struggles she said she has learned that it will ultimately depend on Cambodian

women to improve their place in Khmer society.

"It's up to the people. When they have more ability they can earn more money,"

she said. "When a woman has ability, she will easily find a job."



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