Every morning at ten o'clock, Sok Sopheap sets off to pick up her grandchildren from the local school in time for lunch. In Tropang Thom village, Sopheap is a familiar face. But she’s also unusual. People of her age in other countries often spend their days in quiet comfort, but Sopheap is bustling about. In some ways, she has no choice.
Climate change is transforming Tropang Thom, and older women like Sopheap bear heavy burdens confronting the shift. Tropang Thom has been in the grip of an oscillating water crisis, like other villages in Takeo province. During some months, taps run dry, paddy fields wither and villagers walk up to 20 kilometres to collect water. At other times, a sudden onslaught of rain floods the village and washes crops away. Children fall sick from a lack of clean water and nutrition. Residents lament that the rice harvest calendar no longer matches the weather calendar. With declining crop yields, households are having to think outside the box for solutions.
The double burden of climate change on Cambodian women
While young men migrate to urban centres in search of jobs, women and children stay in the villages. Younger women spend the week working late hours in textile mills nearby for meagre incomes, while older women tend the fields, take care of the children and assume nearly all the domestic responsibilities. Even for spritely Sopheap, the burden is undeniable. As climate change pushes everyone to work harder and harder for less and less, more generations are sucked into this vicious cycle.
Generations of women are stuck in this trap. Yet Sopheap is one of the lucky few who seems to have managed to break free. A couple of years ago, Sopheap invested in a biogas pipeline fitted to her home with the support of a local enterprise called ATEC International. The device provides renewable energy from manure sourced straight from her cow-shed, and has eased Sopheap’s life in many ways.
Nearly 85 per cent of rural Cambodia relies on firewood for energy, and for Sopheap, breaking out of this habit was transformative. Not only did she save money in the long run by switching to biogas, she freed up much of her day from collecting firewood and other associated tasks. She has even invested in a unique biogas-adapted rice cooker. Preparing meals, heating water and doing domestic chores are all much faster, so she spends her extra free time making handicrafts for additional income, volunteering as a community health worker in the village, and doting on her beloved grandchildren. She was the first, but a number of people in the village have since followed her example and use biogas.
Women like Sopheap are often the first to adopt new technology and knowledge in communities where resistance to change is very high. Yet awareness is slowly growing among older women that they can leverage their interpersonal networks to lead efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
“Renewable energy policies in Asia almost never factor in gender. The benefits of these policies and programmes rarely reach women and marginalized groups unless we actively engage women at every level of decision-making. This is really a huge opportunity to scale up renewable energy, as women are at the heart of any social transformation.” says Annette Wallgren, Gender and Environment Officer at UN Environment Asia and the Pacific Office.
Stepping stones for policy success
Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment emphasizes the great value of women participating in the fight against climate change, and driving change at the local level. “Women are the backbone and breadwinners of Cambodia. We need to engage them, encourage them and provide more information so they can build awareness and deal with climate change better,” says Oum Sophy, Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Environment.
Building smart and resilient towns and cities requires that the power of women and marginalized groups be harnessed for positive change. Innovation is creating space for an intergenerational dialogue to happen, where older and younger women raise their voices for climate action and have a seat at the policy table.
Women like Sok Sopheap are helping this innovation happen, and inspiring others to change. By empowering her and other women, communities and the environment benefit.
UN Women and UN Environment are jointly implementing the “EmPower: Women for Climate-Resilient Societies” project with the support of the Swedish Development Cooperation Agency. Running from 2018-2022 in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Viet Nam and regionally in Asia-Pacific, the project aims to ensure that gender equality and human rights are at the heart of climate action and disaster risk reduction.