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


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.


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 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.

Key Findings

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.

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. 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.

Want to read the full paper? It is available open access

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

About this research

    Simone Soeters

    IV Bunthoeun

    Juliet Willetts

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

    Recommended for

    UN Sustainable Development Goals

    This research contributes to the following SDGs

    About this research

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

      Simone Soeters


      IV Bunthoeun


      Juliet Willetts

      Recommended for

      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.


      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.


      Empowerment 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 WASH
      Gender equality in WASH 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.
      Sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH)
      Sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) 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.

      Let your research make a social impact

      Arianne Zajac prepared this research following an interview with Melita Grant.