Forty-three year-old Him Hun has watched her life slowly crumble around her since
her husband died in 1989 after he was press-ganging into forest clearing duties along
the western border. She now lives on the roof of Phnom Penh building with her four
children, aged eight to 21, and ekes out a living selling fruit through the day.
"Things have just gone from worse to worse. I used to send my son to school
in the hope that one day he could become a government official but now I can hardly
even afford to feed my family, how can afford school fees?" asked Hun who makes
3,000 to 4,000 riel a day.
Hun's plight is shared by hundreds of thousands of Cambodian women. The two decades
of warfare that ravaged Cambodia also left the country with a warped demographic
profile. According to U.N. estimates, women comprise 60 percent of the population
over the age of 25. Thirty to 35 percent of all households are headed by women, 40
percent of which are widows.
"When we ask the women why they are working like men in the factories or as
porters, beggars, or plastic collectors, they always say the same thing: 'It is because
I have no husband," said Serey Phal, vice president of the Phnom Penh Women's
"You now see many women working through sickness or pregnancy because they have
no choice, they need to eat," she said.
Widows and abandoned wives have become a common sight in Phnom Penh and the provinces,
living on the streets, in public areas, around railway stations and deserted buildings.
The situation is also hard on the children who are forced to work as plastic collectors
or beggars to help their mothers and denied the chance of a proper education. Cases
of mothers selling their children into prostitution have also become more common,
social workers say.
The situation of widows was further hurt by the State of Cambodia's 1989 decision
to abandon its collective farm policies, which had provided a form of community support
for single mothers.
The economic liberalization of the late 1980s allowed people access to bank loans
but unless they had a house, land or other assets of value they were refused credit.
"How are the poor supposed to have these things. I know that other countries
have banking for the poor, but here we have only banking for the rich," Phal
As a result of this predicament, many NGOs began to establish credit services in
addition to providing health care, and education programs for women.
"There are a lot of poor women who are very short of food, clothing, clean water
and medicine who need our help," said Tapati Dus, manager of Worldvision's WID
program. The project focuses on providing women with credit and encouraging them
to start up their own small business, such as fish, vegetable and noodle vending
or growing agricultural products. The project allows poor women to borrow amounts
ranging from 10,000 to 50,000 riels at an interest rate of three percent, which is
much less than the rates offered by loan sharks who charge 25 to 30 percent per month.
Tapati said that the poor are very uncomfortable, facing many problems in loosing
business and they will cry if they have to borrow from others.