When Finn Church Aid (FCA), the largest Finnish NGO in development cooperation, established a regional office in Phnom Penh in 2011, it aimed to empower women in Cambodia’s rural communities where families lack public services like health and education and decently paid employment opportunities.
By focusing on gender inequality FCA funded by Women’s Bank—a group of Finnish shareholders and donors—partnered with Life With Dignity, a local Cambodian NGO, to educate women to take control over their finances by opening up village banks and by forming women agricultural cooperatives (WAC).
“The banks have given women the training and support they need to run a successful business, how to save and invest properly and access to funding to seek other investments. And have enabled them to be leaders in their village’s development,” said Anu Riikonen, FCA’s regional representative for Asia, noting that 80 per cent of the banks members are women. Today, there are 365 village banks spread out over 68 villages in four provinces that have directly benefited 4,200 women through vocational training and access to financial support.
Srey Yann, a 35-year-old mother of two who farms in Ou Heng village of Pursat Province, is just one of many who have benefited from the banks. When Yann took out a loan to expand her farming capabilities she was provided seeds and technical assistance to start cultivating vegatables—a rarity in Cambodia’s rice dominated agricultural sector. With her first crop yielding $150, she soon added more vegetables and purchased chickens and pigs, resulting in a second yield of $250.
“Now I have started my own enterprise and it has become much easier for me to pay for my daughter’s education and manage my personal expenses. Pig farming and vegetable farming have flourished in this place where one would not see vegetables and pigs before,” said Yann.
Through the establishment of 24 WACs throughout the four targeted provinces of Battambang, Pursat, Kampong Speu and Kampong Chhnang, which vary in size from 50 to 100 members, “women have learned the need for cooperation, especially in Battambang province where men traditionally go to Thailand as migrant workers and the women are left to care for their families alone,” said Riikonen.
“The [cooperatives] allow for women to collaborate with other stakeholders and this creates political empowerment. They are linked to the markets and are registered on the commune level and with the provincial authorities,” she said adding that through the financial management skills that the members receive, they have been able to negotiate fair prices for their produce. According to an independent survey conducted from 2011 to 2014, average daily income of (WAC) participants increased from $1.20 to $5.73.
In Doung village of Battambang province, Trea Somnag joined a women’s agricultural collective in 2012. Over the course of two years, her and her husband, Tern Tha, were able to save enough to invest in a watering system that allows them to grow crops during the dry season. This allowed them to make close to $3000 a year while also harvesting rice on their own land. They say that they plan on expanding their business by buying more land. Rented land they have already tripled in the last two years.