On International Women’s Day, female farmers of Cambodia are building a movement, and one reaches a milestone for her family.
Meas Sopheap spends a lot of her time growing rice, a vocation requiring long days hard at work in the southern Cambodian sun. But if she appears to be relaxed these days, she’s earned it.
I first met Meas Sopheap in 2013 in her village in southern Cambodia, where she grows rice and trains others to do so using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). Using this method, which requires no high-tech seeds or expensive equipment, Sopheap was able to greatly increase her supply of rice, solving both an income and food shortage for an extended family of seven younger brothers and sisters. She’s been working hard to support them all since she was a teenager when she had to drop out of school to help her parents grow food. She later took over full responsibility for leading the family when her parents passed away.
On International Women’s Day, Sopheap was in Phnom Penh to talk about how women can grow more food, and earn more money. There were 200 others at this Women Farmer Forum conference, organized by Oxfam and a dozen other national and international organizations interested in helping women farmers here.
Women make up 75 percent of the agricultural labor force in Cambodia, and it’s a tough life. “Young people think agriculture is too hard,” says Muyleang Kim, a 22-year-old agricultural engineering student attending the conference. “They think they can’t earn any money, and there are no markets for their crops, so they look for other jobs” in urban areas or overseas.
Women farmers usually also have family caregiving responsibilities, as well as pressure to produce food and earn cash. The pressure to feed and educate all her younger siblings was sometimes too much for Sopheap, who tells me, “some days when it was too hot, and life was too difficult, I would just sit down and cry.” Her worries kept her up at night.
But a few years of improved rice production using SRI has changed everything for Sopheap. First, she grew enough to eat and to sell. She fixed up her house, got all her brothers and sisters in school, and encouraged others to try SRI practices. Her ability as a trainer gained her respect, and she became deputy chief of her village.
What a farmer victory looks like
Seeing her for the first time in three years makes me ask Sopheap how things are going since we last talked. The answer: quite well! Her three youngest brothers and sisters have all graduated from college and have found employment, two as teachers and another as an administrator at the provincial education department in Kampong Speu. “I no longer have to support them,” she says, describing this as a “great victory.” Her stature as a leader continues to grow: The leaders of the commune where she lives want her to run for election for the commune council. She’s thinking over the idea.
What does she want to do to help women farmers in her village? She was getting great ideas at the conference in Phnom Penh: She wants to help create a village seed bank, and better market the rice grown in her village so she and others can get better prices. “I want to mobilize people and network,” she says, in order to open up new opportunities for rice growers. She’s on Facebook now, like so many Cambodians, and wants to use the social network to find ways to “get more for our rice.”