Fostering socioeconomic recovery through business skills in Cambodia

Author: Hnin Ei Lwin

COVID-19 Socio-economic Recovery Project beneficiary Youn Seau drives her motorcycle in Keurt Village, Chrouy Svay Commune, Koh Kong Province, Cambodia. Photo: UN Women/Ploy Phutpheng

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 33-year-old Youn Seau was self-employed doing motorcycle cleaning and repair in the village of Keurt, Chrouy Svay Commune, Koh Kong Province, southwestern Cambodia.

When her mother tested positive for COVID-19 and her household was placed in lockdown in 2021, they struggled to access enough food. Despite the lifting of pandemic-related restrictions in 2022, she still found it challenging to earn enough income.

According to a 2022 UN socioeconomic impact assessment of COVID-19 in Cambodia, women were more likely than men to face unemployment, lose their jobs permanently and be vulnerable to external shocks.

In response, a UN Women project has been supporting the economic recovery of highly vulnerable women through training, coaching and site visits that have enhanced women’s knowledge, skills and capacity to access employment, nurturing women’s leadership, development and decision-making abilities, and even helping confront intersecting barriers created by gender biases and social norms.

Seau was one of 27 women who took part in a two-day training session on financial literacy, small business management and job-seeking skills. She says she not only learned how to manage finances, but she gained something even more valuable – self-confidence, motivation and, most importantly, hope.

“I’ve become wiser with my spending, considering the pros and cons, and I’ve started making a budget plan,” says Seau. “I’m also now interested in the eco-tourism business.”

The self-identified lesbian says she’s faced many challenges throughout her life, including unequal treatment, exclusion from certain activities, and criticism from her father and community members. But what she didn’t expect from the training was that it would also impart knowledge about gender diversity and establish mutual respect among all trainees as one of its fundamental rules. Seau says every single woman in the training showed her respect, acceptance and encouragement, and she was never excluded from any activities.

“I now feel better about being myself,” shares Seau. “I feel happier, more confident and stronger than before.”

The project in Koh Kong included: two men’s dialogue sessions, with 12 participants; a field visit for the 27 women trained to the Tropang Sangke Commune in Kampot Province, to explore its community-based ecotourism, as well as a second field visit to the Women Champions Network in Kampot Province; and 26 women received a one-day coaching workshop coupled with one-on-one coaching sessions for five of them. In addition, 50 vulnerable women received solar-powered lights for domestic use and 100 women received raincoats and waterproof bags.

Perl Seanglay collects fishing line at Nesat Village Village, Chrouy Svay Commune. Photo: UN Women/Ploy Phutpheng

Before the pandemic, 32-year-old Perl Seanglay’s life revolved around household chores and caring for her three young children in the quiet fishing village of Nesat, in Chrouy Svay Commune.

Her husband had been working as a migrant labourer in Thailand, but the economic downturn forced him to return home in 2022. He acquired a boat with a bank loan to start a fishing business. But Seanglay wasn’t directly involved until recently.

Through the UN Women financial and business skills training, Seanglay learned about marketing, how to manage daily expenses and family income, and how to find jobs or employment opportunities.

“I’m now capable of effectively managing my family’s finances. So, I actively engage in discussions related to our family business with my husband and other community members, applying the negotiation and facilitation skills I’ve acquired,” says Seanglay. “The training inspired me to initiate my own income-generating projects, such as selling local products like marine fishery products. Our women’s group collaboratively sells these products at the local market.”

This women’s group was formed by the women who participated in the UN Women-led financial literacy and business management training and was initiated independently by the women themselves after the training and site visit.

Reflecting on the positive changes in her life, Seanglay says: “The activities from this project have made us, including the other women here, feel committed, more skilled and independent. It has given us a sense of strength.”

Norng Lim Heang (right) speaks to other women in Chrouy Svay Commune, Koh Kong Province, Cambodia. Photo: UN Women/Ploy Phutpheng

Norng Lim Heang, 48, is the women’s group leader from Nesat Village, as well as a former director and current local executive member of the Chrouy Svay Eco-tourism group. Since the UN Women trainings and site visits, she says she’s seen a noticeable change in group members like Seanglay, in their increased participation in community events. Traditionally, she says women in the community seldom got involved in such events. However, project participants now actively engage in the community and are eager to contribute their ideas.

The women’s group also established a fund from selling local products, to support other vulnerable and marginalized women in the community.

Elsewhere in Chrouy Svay Commune, in the village of Saray, 30-year-old Chhann Koury went from housewife to successful businesswoman.

Chhann Koury now runs a successful grocery store business after UN Women training. UN Women/Ploy Phutpheng

Before participating in the UN Women training and one-on-one mentoring, she had no knowledge of shop operations, income and expense management, or how to deal with debt. But after the training, she now knows how to earn, manage and save income, record expenses, and effectively handle debt.  She credits the training for not only equipping her with business planning and marketing skills, but also for driving an increase in sales for her previously struggling shop. By creating a welcoming atmosphere focused on hygiene, customer engagement, and satisfaction, she’s transformed her shop.

UN Women’s ‘Gender-Responsive COVID-19 Socio-Economic Recovery’ project, which ran from November 2022 until October 2023, with funding from the Government of the Republic of Korea, has reached 49 men and 179 women beneficiaries, including at-risk migrant workers and women in rural communities in Cambodia’s Koh Kong, Banteay Meanchey and Battambang provinces.

Nesat Village in Chrouy Svay Commune, Koh Kong Province, Cambodia, is becoming a burgeoning ecotourism destination. Photo: UN Women/Ploy Phutpheng