Phnom Penh – As a business woman, Keo Mom travels a lot and goes to many meetings, sometimes even one-on-one with a businessman. In the eyes of others, that seems inappropriate for a woman like her, who is young and beautiful, to be in a meeting alone with man. But she can’t help pay it any attention.
Make no mistake. Ms. Mom is a successful business woman. She is the president of the Lily Food Industry, which employs 150 people and makes US$4 million in revenue a year.
Her story was among several inspirational ones of women entrepreneurs. They shared their stories at a recent forum that aimed to springboard a concerted action to boost women-headed businesses as a way to lift them out of poverty and to be on a more equal footing with men.
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs organized the forum on “Women Entrepreneurship Promotion” on 6 June through the support from the United Nations Development Programme with the focus on how to help women’s small and medium enterprises grow in Cambodia.
Presiding over the forum, H.E. Dr. Ing Kantha Phavi, Minister of Women’s Affairs, said the economic empowerment of women is a key strategy to promote gender equality and poverty alleviation.
“From a development perspective, future income and employment opportunities in Cambodia will depend, to a large extent, on the prosperity of the private sector,” she said.
“While there are many notable achievements, there are still a number of challenges to be addressed, especially when looking to gender gaps in the business sector and the particular needs for an enabling business environment for women,” she added.
In Cambodia, women feature prominently in the workforce. More than 80 percent of them aged 15 and over are participating in formal and informal employments. Although more than 60 percent of micro, small and medium enterprises are owned by women, some 90 percent of these businesses are very small and in the informal sector. Compared to male entrepreneurs, women still face many difficulties, including, just to name a few, the lack of advanced education and access to market, business information and financial resources.
This needs to change, said Sophie Baranes, Deputy Country Director (Programme) of UNDP in Cambodia.
She said the government, development partners, private sector, and business associations all have important role to play to bring about the needed change that will spur more growth of women-led businesses. Financial institutions should also see they can increase women’s access to a range of financial facilities such as remittance transfer services, credit and insurance.
“This is particularly important for women-owned small- and medium-size enterprises, as they transition from microfinance to mainstream commercial banks,” Ms. Baranes said in her remarks at the forum.
She also noted that removing barriers preventing participation of women entrepreneurs and their access to services will contribute to addressing the overall bottlenecks for the attainment of Millennium Development Goal 3 on gender equality and the Cambodia Millennium Development Goal 1 on poverty reduction.
To this end, the United Nations has developed the MDG Acceleration Framework (MAF) as a practical tool that can be used by countries to identify bottlenecks, solutions and investments needed to speed up progress on lagging MDGs.
In 2012, Cambodia has been selected to apply the framework with a focus on CMDG 3, particularly promotion of women’s economic empowerment.
In a business playing field traditional dominated by men, Keo Mom, the president of Lily Food Industry, can be seen as a rare success story. She started her company 10 years ago. She works hard, takes risk, and has overcome doubts about her ability to prevail in her venture. Moreover, she has defied the law of tradition where men usually enjoy greater socio-economic status than women.
"If you succeed as a woman, they tell you: It's not your doing, it's a miracle,” Ms. Mom said, recalling the constant pressure she has endured to produce real results of her business.
In Pursat province, Duy Sareth, 43, is a successful entrepreneur in her own right. She heads an association of 190 members that produces and sells rattan products. Through the group, the members share ideas and information about the market, and also ensure control of quality of the products to meet the needs of clients.
All of this, Ms. Sareth said, “is to eradicate poverty among us.”
“For us to succeed, we need to have the courage, patience, and commitment to do so. Otherwise, we will remain trailing behind men as always,” she said.