Independence, leadership and inter-generational impact: Women’s economic empowerment in Cambodia is so much more than accessing capital.

Maneth Pol, with co-authorship by Hannah McNicol

In Cambodia, only 30% of the overall population is formally ‘banked’ meaning that 70% are ‘unbanked’ or not included in the formal banking system. Being ‘unbanked’  is an issue because it means individuals cannot access secure and safe financial facilities which can impact their ability to grow savings, track money flow and build  businesses to support sustainable livelihoods. When broken down further by gender, just 60% of women have access to any form of formal financial services (UNCDF 2021). Consequently, many organisations and charities strive to build and foster women’s economic empowerment in Cambodia. For example, Good Return provides sustainable capital to aspiring micro-entrepreneurs alongside financial literacy and education training; SHE Investments is a social enterprise that delivers gender-focused and culturally tailored business incubator and accelerator programs for women; The WE Act is a five-year project that supports young women in Cambodia’s urban centers to develop women-led MSMEs through capacity development, network expansion and access to finance.

However, women’s economic empowerment (WEE) is so much more than building finance or accessing capital. Fostering WEE often leads to greater impact than may initially meet the eye – building a sense of independence, fostering women in leadership positions and creating transformative generational change as mothers leave behind an empowered legacy to their own daughters.

As a specialist in the training and mentorship of women-led micro and small enterprises, I have witnessed this impact first-hand and the story of Anna, a receptionist in a garment factory in Phnom Penh, is a powerful example.

Anna attended a financial coaching program designed for women garment workers. Set up by Good Return, the Cambodia Union Federation and in partnership with the NGO People in Need, the program aims to build the resilience and independence of the many women who lost reliable work and income when garment factories shut down during the pandemic. The curriculum covers money management, budget planning, understanding of financial products and service providers, client protection principles, and making informed financial decisions.

Throughout the learning journey, Anna reflected on her current financial situation and the potential to improve her finances by saving and recording her expenses daily. Anna singled out the segment of the curriculum that focused on ‘Life Cycle Needs’ and ‘Emergency Planning’ as particularly helpful. These topics encouraged Anna to reflect on the practicality of planning and preparing an emergency budget so that her family’s financial wellbeing can remain stable, even through tough or unexpected times.

Whilst I was pleased to hear about these intended positive effects of the program, I believe that there are further transformative impacts of the program – even if they are hard to measure or spot. Women’s economic empowerment is also about women building a sense of independence, identity and strength. I have worked with many women in Cambodia who have been told their only option is to be employed by others. However, equipped with financial literacy training I have witnessed how the women I work with can shift their mind-set and build the courage to run their own business or group together with other women to be in business. That is, women’s economic empowerment does not just mean women finding a source of income but also means challenging gender norms by starting, managing and successfully running their own businesses.

Similarly, financial education that focuses on shared decision making in the household between genders can have a significant and long-lasting impact. When I spoke to Anna after the course, it was not just a stronger financial future that excited her, but her role in making financial decisions in the family. “I share every session with my husband and children after I returned home from class. It makes me feel supported that my husband is open and happy about my learning progress.”

There is also a clear generational impact to programs that focus on women’s economic empowerment. Important to many cultures around the world, ‘women’s business’ or the knowledge that mothers pass on to their children, and particularly their own daughters, means that women’s economic empowerment can be amplified immediately when women are given the adequate resources they need to build independence, resilience and financial freedom. The impact is two-fold: as women feel more independent in their own abilities and build self confidence, they demonstrate a strong and inspiring image to their children and community. However, they simultaneously go on to share this knowledge and encourage their own children to follow in their footsteps – whether that is to finish school, start their own business or create an environment in their home where financial decisions are shared equally between genders. I have encountered this first hand. In an interview last year with UNWomen, that focused on financial inclusion for Cambodian women migrants, I shared how it was my own mother who inspired me to start saving from a very young age. She instilled in me that finding inclusive and safe financial service providers not only allows women to save money for their own goals but is central to financial freedom.

Lastly, I am a passionate believer that the best practical approach to programs that focus on women’s economic empowerment is intersectional. Programs that cater to diverse needs, for example those adapted to work with people with disabilities, can make real positive and inclusive change. I have been inspired to be a part of the team at Good Return who have adapted its financial literacy programs by partnering with disability inclusive organisations such as Women and Children Disabled Persons Forum Kampong Cham (WCDFK), Phnom Penh Center for Independent Living (PPCIL), Association Music for People with Disabilities (AMPD), Samrong Tong Disabled Persons Federation (SRTF) and Persons with Disabilities Foundation (PWDF).

*Anna Brand is a nickname. Anna’s real name has been anonymised.

More on Maneth Pol:

Maneth is a Programme and Partnership Officer in the CAFE Team at Good Return and the founder of Fem2Coach, a coaching start-up that empowers women and young people to create positive change and impact in a personal, professional, and societal leadership capacity. Maneth specialises in women’s economic empowerment through training and mentorship of women-led micro and small enterprises and was previously a Programs Manager and Facilitator at SHE Investments. She was also the co-founder of youth-led organisation ‘Run for Social’, which supported children and people with disabilities for formal education. Maneth is a core member of the UN Women Youth Leadership Academy and alumni of the Asia-Europe Foundation and a receiver of the Women Deliver Young Leaders Award in 2018.

Hannah McNicol: Hannah is a Communications Officer at Good Return, Communications Consultant at the Australian International Development Network and dual PhD Researcher at the University of Melbourne/Manchester focusing on SDG:5 Gender Equality in Special Economic Zones in Cambodia.