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YouenSophea, Yoeun Sophaort, and Soeu Samai (Sopheap’s nephew) have lunch at theirkitchen.

by Heifer Cambodia

Anlong Sa — a poor rural village in Phnom Leap commune, Preahneth Preah district, Bantey Meanchey province — is inhabited by 146 families who rely on traditional agriculture (including rice and livestock), fishing and making bamboo baskets for their livelihood. However, the village faces many challenges including poor quality of agricultural products and services, natural disasters, lack of education and poor sanitation and hygiene. Low education and literacy are factors that lead to domestic violence while social norms put women in a lower status then men, and a lack of job opportunities lead to high migration for work and the problem of human trafficking and HIV/AIDS.

Khuon Sopheap, 42, is a poor widow in this village who has experienced a very hard life since her childhood after her mother died when she was 8 years old. Her father then married another woman and moved to live in another village, leaving her to live with her poor aunt Rath Tong (now 56 years old). Sopheap had no chance to attend school due to poverty. She got married to Muth Sa Oeun at age of 17 in the hope of building a happy family. However, her husband helped little in doing farming and earning income to support the household. He spent most of his time drinking alcohol and wasted the family property, plummeting the family into a worse situation. Sopheap divorced her husband in 2005 when he migrated to work as laborer in Thailand and took another wife there. A huge burden is laid on her shoulders as she has to take care of all children alone.

A mother of five children (four daughters and one son), Sopheap has struggled in earning income to feed her children, her aunt Rath Tong and three nephews. The household’s main source of income is from making bamboo and rattan baskets for sale. All her family members get involved in making the baskets for family income generation. However, after paying for some production materials including bamboos and metal wire, the family is able to earn only 115,000 Riels (about US $28.75) every three months from selling the baskets. Her family also owns one hectare of rice land. But rice yield can feed the family for only seven months after harvest. As income from bamboo and rattan baskets is not enough for support family life, her family has to borrow money from others and sell their labor.

“I have many children that rice yield on 1 hectare of land cannot feed us enough. We were poor in family planning as we did not know how to do birth spacing,” said Sopheap. Her family has not enough nutrition in their foods. Her family rarely has meat in their meals as they have no money to buy meat. They have fishes, fresh-water shellfish, snails or frogs that they catch from the field and river. For the family’s vegetables, Sopheap's aunt Rath Tong picks morning glory and water lilies from the river and edible leaves from the jungle.

The family’s poverty and debt prompted her eldest daughter, Yoeun Chann (22), to drop out of study at grade 2 to help the family earn income. She got married to Che Rithih (27), who helps doing farming and catching fishes to feed the family. They now have an 8-month-old baby girl, Ruon Choeung. 

Then because Sopheap had no money to support her children for scholastic materials, her second son, Yoeun Khol (20), and her third daughter, Yoeun Sopheap (17), stopped their study at grade 4 and grade 5 respectively. Currently, Khol has migrated to sell his labor in Thailand while Sopheap helps produce baskets and sometimes sells her labor in the crop harvest of other villagers. 

“I don’t want my son to work in Thailand as he might be risky to any bad acts while staying far away from home,” said Sopheap. “However, after joining the group, I plan to enhance livestock production and grow vegetables so that my son and daughters will have jobs at home.”

“I am very sad that I cannot pursue my study,” said Sopheap, adding, “However, I want to be trained in sewing skill as a tailor in the future. With this career, I will be able to earn more money to take care of my poor mother.”

Because of the dire poverty of families like Sopheap's, Heifer Cambodia implemented the “Community’s Empowerment and Environmental Protection Surround Tonle Sap Lake” project in July 2010. This project was launched in partnership with Cambodian Human Resource Development (CHRD), a local NGO. The project aims to improve income, promote environmental sustainability and involve the whole community in development activities. Twenty-five families were selected to receive piglets, horticulture seeds, fruit trees and other agriculture equipment along with training. In June 2011, Sopheap's family was one of 25 additional families to be included in the project, and they received piglets and other resources through a Passing on the Gift™ ceremony in October 2011. 

Sopheap takes good care of the piglets, keeping them healthy by applying simple techniques she gained from training. One piglet is fattened for sale in the next four months while another is raised for reproductive purposes. She gets up early each morning at 5:00, fetching water from the river, which is located about 50 meters from her house to clean the pigs and pen. Then she feeds them with help from her daughters (the pigs are fed three times a day, morning, afternoon and evening). She starts making bamboo baskets at 8 a.m. and continues her work until 8 p.m.

"I am so busy at my daily works from morning till night," said Sopheap. "I sometime prepare foods, but sometime my daughters do it. Though I am busy, I allocate my time for attending literacy class, but not regularly because sometime I have to finish the baskets to sell for foods." Sopheap has joined a group savings program. She puts 2,000 Riels (about US $0.5), in group saving every month. She has attended technical and non-technical trainings, including the 12 Cornerstones, animal husbandry and vegetable growing.

The family shares household chores. in the early morning, aunt Rath Tong brings along with her a packed lunch and goes to the jungle about two kilometers from the village to collect rattans for producing baskets. She returns home at 3 p.m. Sometimes she goes to catch fish with her fishing net, traps and hooks. She also has an old, small boat as a means to catch fish.

A flood hit Sopheap's village last October and lasted until early November this year. Her vegetable garden was washed away while her rice stalks were completely destroyed by the flood. Her family had to work hard to restore everything after the floodwaters receded.

Sopheap’s other two daughters, Yoeun Sopea (13), and Yoeun Sophort (10) are currently studying at grade 3 in a primary school, which is located about 2 kilometers from the village. They have the afternoon class, lasting from 1 to 5 p.m. In morning before school time, Sophea and Sophort help their mother by cleaning animal pens, feeding pigs, cleaning the house, preparing lunch, and making the baskets.

Editor's note: This post is part of a new series that follows the progress of specific families, starting at the beginning of their work with Heifer. Initially, this series will focus on our programs in Asia/South Pacific, where our colleagues have chosen one family in each region in the countries where we work and will bring us quarterly updates. 

House of Ms. KhuonSopheap’s family. Its roof and walls were built with thatches.
KhuonSopheap cleans and feeds her pigs.
YoeunSophea fetches water from the river (about 50 meters from the house) to help clean the penand pigs.
KhuonSopheap and her daughters make bamboo baskets.


Heifer International

Heifer International is a nonprofit, non-governmental organization working with communities to end hunger and poverty while caring for the Earth.