South East Asia

Rural Piped-Water Enterprises in Cambodia: A Pathway to Women’s Empowerment?

Clean Water and SanitationGender Equality

This research examined the extent to which women’s ownership and management of water supply schemes led to their empowerment, including their economic empowerment, in rural Cambodia. Privately managed water supply schemes in rural Cambodia serve over one million people.

This summary, including its recommendations and ideas, was created by Melita Grant and is based on original research. The original research itself was conducted in collaboration with the following researchers.

Original research
Journal article: Rural Piped-Water Enterprises in Cambodia: A Pathway to Women’s Empowerment? (2019)

Melita Grant, Simone Soeters, IV Bunthoeun and Juliet Willetts


This empirical data collection used a mixed methods approach.

The research methodology was primarily qualitative, underpinned by a literature review and women’s empowerment framing. The literature review investigated the barriers and enablers for female-managed enterprises in Cambodia in diverse sectors beyond WASH, to better understand how experiences of entrepreneurship in other sectors might relate to the rural piped-water sector.

Empirical research was conducted in eight provinces of Cambodia: Koh Pong, Battambang, Kampong, Kampot, Sihanouk, Takeo, Kandal and Kratie.

Purposive sampling was used to identify and conduct 27 structured interviews, which were primarily qualitative with some use of quantitative approaches. Female water entrepreneurs (n = 15), as well as female and male government stakeholders at the commune council (n = 4) and provincial and national level (n = 8) were interviewed by East Meets West and Cambodian Water Association staff with the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney.

Important to note: the study encountered some challenges related to translation from Khmer interview notes into English, and issues related to exploring sensitive gender issues in environments that were sometimes not completely confidential. The method of recording interviews was by handwritten notes in Khmer, which were then typed into collation templates in English. This resulted in the collation templates capturing the key points raised by the interviewee, but not a great deal of detail, potentially resulting in some nuances being missed.



This research was funded by an external organisation, but detail has not been provided.

  • For policymakers
  • For International Aid & Development
  • Cambodia
  • access to water
  • enterprises
  • gender
  • women

Key points

  • Governments and donors can support entrepreneurs to build their customer base by helping to design and deliver community education campaign about the importance of clean water and the benefits of connecting to a piped water scheme.

This study is the first of its kind to systematically investigate the experiences and needs of female water supply scheme owners, using well-established theoretical frameworks for women’s empowerment, namely Longwe’s stages of empowerment, and Rowlands, VeneKlasen and Miller’s elaboration on different types of power.

Business management frameworks relevant to the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector were also drawn on to assess operational constraints and enablers. Fifteen structured interviews were conducted with female water entrepreneurs in rural Cambodia.


  • Female entrepreneurs reported encountering four key barriers to establishing and managing water supply schemes.

    The first was operational, and government and regulatory related issues, followed by financial issues and limited demand for water services.

  • Three important enablers were reported by entrepreneurs: social enablers, economic enablers and program support from government, associations and non-government organisations (NGOs).
  • Whilst there was evidence of empowerment reported by female water enterprise owners, the complexity of the ongoing empowerment process, challenges and limitations were also observed.

What it means

Women’s empowerment can be advanced through leadership of, and involvement in water enterprises, as evidenced by this study, however, gender norms constrained women, especially with respect to mobility (leaving the home for extended periods), and household and family duties impacting on income-generating work or vice versa. As such, targeted strategies are needed by a range of actors to address such constraints.

The findings of this study can assist NGOs, donors and governments incentivizing entrepreneurship in water services, to ensure that these interventions are not gender blind, and to draw on evidence of the barriers and enablers for female entrepreneurs and how these are influenced by contextualized gender norms.

The findings are particularly relevant for civil society organisations and donors who are funding and delivering small scale piped water systems and are actively seeking women and families to own and operate these systems. Where governments are not serving communities with WASH, other actors are stepping in, such as family businesses, community groups, NGOs and enterprises. There are risks associated with decentralised systems that are not subject to oversight or governance measures, not only for communities, but for the entrepreneurs and community groups themselves. Assuming empowerment outcomes from entrepreneurship may put women and families at financial risk, which makes research such as this important, because it asked women managing piped water systems what the barriers and enablers were for their schemes. While the research was limited to Cambodia, it has significance especially for other contexts such as Viet Nam, India, Lao PDR, Indonesia and African contexts that are adopting and promoting small-scale enterprises in WASH.

How to use

  • Support women to know about the financial benefits and risks of water enterprises, so that their expectations around profit levels, and return on investment, are realistic
  • Respond to operational challenges
  • Build an understanding of gender differences and challenges into programming so that the differences identified by entrepreneurs and stakeholders are responded to (e
  • Governments and donors can support entrepreneurs to build their customer base by helping to design and deliver community education campaign about the importance of clean water and the benefits of connecting to a piped water scheme


Thank you to iDE Global

These insights were made available thanks to the support of iDE Global, who are committed to the dissemination of knowledge for all.


iDE Global Logo

Are you a researcher looking to make a real-world impact? Join Acume and use our tool to transform your research into a practical summary made for policymakers and practitioners. With our help, you can reach a wider audience and get your ideas used in the real world – all for free.

Already have an account? Log in




Hello researcher

Use our free tool to transform your research into practical summaries for policymakers and practitioners. Reach a wider audience and make a real-world impact. Sign up now, and after creating your first summary, become one of our paid experts.

Start sharingLearn more

Hello changemaker

Access our free library of summaries to find evidence, or book a one-hour consultation. Gain diverse perspectives, avoid costly mistakes, and enhance your social impact by collaborating with experts who understand and represent local communities.

Chat with usLearn more
Grant, Melita. 'Rural Piped-Water Enterprises in Cambodia: A Pathway to Women’s Empowerment?'. Acume.