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

Melita Grant


University of Technology Sydney (UTS)

Melita Grant specialises in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and integrated water resources management (IWRM) in international development, with a focus on inclusion.


Key Takeaways

    How To Apply Insights

    • 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. Offer and facilitate financial advice. Support is needed to help entrepreneurs to access low interest loans, and NGOs/donors/government could assist with up-front finance overall (to assist with establishing the scheme and connecting to remote properties) and development of alternative financing innovations (i.e. subsidised loan facilities).
    • Respond to operational challenges: better communication between different levels of government (communal, provincial and national) and enterprises about construction works that may damage pipes/disrupt services is needed. Governments and donors can support feasibility studies so that entrepreneurs can hire qualified companies to conduct studies to determine the best locations for water sources and treatment plants.
    • Build an understanding of gender differences and challenges into programming so that the differences identified by entrepreneurs and stakeholders are responded to (e.g. mobility and time constraints in particular). Safe transport options, additional support for women to be able to travel with their families (husband, children) and other methods to assist women to safely travel could be part of the response to this reported challenge of lack of mobility. An understanding of gender related challenges can be supported by the use of empowerment frameworks, so that a holistic understanding of a range of dimensions can be investigated and considered.
    • 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.

    Why This Research Matters

    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.

    Findings & Research Conclusions

    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 were 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). This study found that, 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. 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.

    Research's methodology

    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.

    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.


    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.

    EmpowermentEmpowerment has been defined as an ongoing process that can transform individuals through increasing critical consciousness, with a focus on the ability to choose, relying both on individual and collective action. 
    Gender equality in WASHWithout paying close attention to multiple dimensions of empowerment, efforts to increase gender equality may fall short or result in negative unintended consequences for women and other marginalised peoples in WASH programs.
    Sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) Sustainability of WASH (achieving SDG 6) is dependent on fully engaging with the targets and principles of Sustainable Development Goal 5 (gender equality)

    Reference this research

    Grant, M.; Soeters, S.; Bunthoeun, I.; Willetts, J. Rural Piped-Water Enterprises in Cambodia: A Pathway to Women’s Empowerment? (2019) Water, 11, 2541.

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