Small business key to lifting women out of poverty

Women making flowers
Women make artificial flowers to sell for income. (Photo: UNDP Cambodia)

Takeo – Handicraft maker Chhel Sovann, a mother of four, wants to increase her business so that she can earn more to support her family. Having an affordable loan would be an ideal way to do that but the 38-year-old woman could only wish.

“I do not dare take the risk with borrowing money because I am afraid I won’t be able to pay back the loan,” said Chhel Sovann, a resident of Srae Ta Sok village, Takeo province.

Her story is one of economic deprivation that is now at the center of the Cambodian government’s gender policy. The government is trying to tackle the problem by calling for greater efforts to promote women-led small and medium enterprises as a means to lift women out of extreme poverty.

“By encouraging the development of small or medium enterprises, the livelihoods of people and among them women living in the rural areas will improve,” Minister of Women’s Affairs, H.E. Dr. Ing Kantha Phavi, said. “Women’s economic empowerment is a priority because we believe it’s achievable and critical for bringing about more achievements in other Cambodia Millennium Development Goals,” she added.

The minister said in her remarks at a recent meeting where government officials and representatives of development partners discussed steps to apply the MDG Acceleration Framework. Simply known as MAF, it is a policy approach designed to assist countries to identify and remove hurdles to eradicating extreme poverty and achieving sustainable development.

To date 39 countries have adopted MAF. Cambodia has chosen to use it to address economic empowerment of Cambodian women in a bid to make greater progress in the CMDG 3 on gender equality.

The two-day meeting threw the spotlight on the informal sector of the economy where women are a prominent force. Women own more than 60 percent of micro, small and medium enterprises. However, some 90 percent of them are very small, family-run type of businesses. Education, health, social protection, skills and access to decent wage employment for women were other issues that came under the microscope at the meeting.

Shantanu Mukherjee, Policy Advisor on Microeconomics of UNDP, proposed for consideration by the participants a narrow-down approach aimed at areas that matter the most. He said focus should be given to skillsjob matching and creating conditions for women to benefit in the process.

“For example, there is no point of training people in one particular aspect of job if that job sector is a torment to the country. Also, it’s not going to help if a person is going to find it hard to locate a job if the job is located elsewhere,” Mr. Mukherjee said. He came from UNDP headquarters in New York to assist the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in brainstorming ideas how to make the new approach work in the Cambodian context.

“Cambodia is the only country that applies MAF to promote women’s economic empowerment. So it is a trend-setter in this regard,” he said.

Ms. Meas Savry, who heads the Khmer Women Handicraf Association in Takeo province, was among several representatives of civil society groups that took part in the discussion about MAF action plan. She said she was encouraged by the new approach but added that it must be followed up concrete actions. One of them, she said, should address ways to help poor women find affordable loan to do small business.

Chhel Sovann fits in that profile. She selfemploys to make decorative items at her wooden house which is tucked in middle of the rice field in Takeo province. The lack of money to buy raw materials has recently forced her to suspend her production and that worried her. But lately she got a reprieve after she found a temporary employment with the Khmer Women Handicraft Association.
The group has recruited 30 women to make various souvenir items to supply to a store in Phnom Penh.

Chhel Sovann earns US$70 a month. That amount combined with another US$80 her husband makes each month from working as a construction worker are the main income for her family’s expenses.

“I just hope to have a steady demand from the client so that we can keep the job to earn a living to support our children’s education,” she said.