Guest Articles

March 8

Mara Bolis

Diverse Pathways to Women’s Economic Empowerment: Stories from Three Local Leaders on International Women’s Day

I spent the days immediately preceding this year’s International Women’s Day with women participating in Oxfam’s programming in Cambodia. Their experiences have given me insight into the different pathways to economic empowerment available to women – a fitting topic for discussion today.

We often think of women’s economic empowerment as focused on achieving material goals like income, credit and jobs. But true empowerment is much more complex, and it requires three key conditions. First, as the women (and men) in Cambodia have taught me, for economic activities to lead to empowerment, both men and women must realize that they are equals, with equal voices and equal contributions to make. Otherwise, women may be offered opportunities by NGOs or the private sector, but they will lack the time and/or confidence to do so. Second, women must be freed from domestic violence that holds them back. And third, women must have not only access to opportunities that allow them to pursue their dreams, but also the family and community support to take advantage of those opportunities. When these conditions come together, lives can be changed forever – not only for this generation but for generations to come.

The importance of these factors can be seen in the experiences of three of the women I met in Cambodia. Each of them is pursuing new opportunities for economic empowerment, impacting not only themselves and their families, but their entire communities.


Insisting on Equality

Dam Chanthy is the director of the Highlander Association and an indigenous Toumpoun woman. She started working as a community organizer over 20 years ago, informing indigenous people of their rights. She formed the Highlander Association in 2000, working with grants and other support from Oxfam: The association is helping communities to learn about their land rights and question the traditional gender roles that society imposes on men and women. After training workshops with Highlander Association, men and women are learning to work together in new ways. But when she first started to work in the community, only men would come to the meetings, as social norms at the time dictated that men handled community decision-making.

Dam Chanthy changed people’s ideas of what women can accomplish in her community. Her youngest daughter is 18 years old. She named her Srykeo, which translates as Women Gemstone. Srykeo wants to be a women’s rights activist.


Overcoming Domestic Violence

Ly Chung and Thea Chhin are a married couple, both of whom participate in an Oxfam-supported savings program called Saving for Change, where groups save their own money and borrow from each other on terms and conditions that they determine themselves. Together with other couples from the community, they told me about their experience with Oxfam’s Gender Action Learning System, which is a set of activities used to balance planning and decision-making in communities where women typically have little say. Oxfam is linking the two approaches to support women’s economic empowerment initiatives that encourage positive gender dynamics in families where women are gaining more economic power. Together, Ly Chung and Thea Chhin had mapped out a future where they would be prosperous together, with a car and children enrolled in school.

They told me that they now feel very confident they can achieve this future, because of important decisions Ly Chung has made. Previously, he would drink most of their money away. He struggled to hold down a job, and often got into arguments with Thea Chhin, which sometimes turned violent. The couple realized that this behavior was holding them both back from realizing their dreams, so Ly Chung resolved to make a change.

Now, Thea Chhin says that she is able to get ahead in life because her husband works and she is free from violence in her home. She told me both she and her husband give advice to other couples struggling with domestic violence to help them achieve the same stability: “We want to be a role model couple and encourage other couples who face domestic violence.”


Supporting Women in Seeking New Opportunities

Khet Sokhin is a chicken producer, and a 35 year-old mother of three who is part of a producers group that has been established through a grant to Oxfam partners Action for Development. When I met her, she presented a poster to the group members and the Oxfam staff who had come to learn from her – a group of about 20 – 30 people. She showed a diagram of the chicken supply chain in her region, explained the purchasers’ requirements, and told us what inputs are necessary to achieve the group’s production goals. While she explained this on behalf of the group, her two older sons were listening patiently. But her youngest child, a one year-old daughter, was not impressed by her mother’s divided attention: She clutched her legs, trying to climb up into her arms. When her mother continued with the presentation, her daughter, angry now, started crying and hitting the poster in protest. A fellow group member swooped the child away so that she could finish her presentation in peace.

I was struck by the universal reality revealed in this moment; women assuming leadership positions have so much to manage and cannot do it alone. But with the support of their families and surrounding communities, anything is possible – and the benefits go both ways. Khet Sokhin is achieving her goals and serving as a role model for her children, who watched as she explained how selling chicken provides money for her family, which allows her children to go to school. Meanwhile, the producer group’s work contributes to the local economy, enabling other children to pursue their education. As they grow, these children – boys and girls alike – will see women as economic contributors, not economic dependents, as is still the case in many societies today, due to a lack of opportunity for women to prove themselves.

These three very different stories all tell us something about women’s economic empowerment. In order for a woman to be successful in pursuing her goals, she must have access to economic opportunities – but that is not enough in and of itself. She must also be free from violence that drains both her resources and confidence. And she must operate in a community that believes in her abilities and supports her efforts, so that she can believe in herself and achieve her dreams. As a community, the development world must understand this complex web of obstacles and opportunities, if we are to support lasting change.


Mara Bolis is Senior Advisor on Market Systems at Oxfam America.

Photo: Khet Sokhin, chicken producer, Kon Thnout village, Brasat Balang district, Kampong Thom province. Image credit: Savann Oeurm.




gender equality, human rights