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
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
"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."