Cambodia is famous for its street food snacks. If you walk along Street 271 towards Samdach Sothearos Blvd, you will find a long line of delicious and affordable street food.

There, you will find food carts and stalls offering a wide range of options, from Khmer fried noodles and Bai Sach Chrouk (pork and rice) to Yakitori chicken skewers.

Nowadays, you can find almost anything on the street food menu. One of my favourites is fried crickets, not only because of its rich nutrition but also because it is more environmentally friendly. However, I have yet to try fried spiders, but I am definitely open to the idea. How about you?

Nevertheless, I am not here to provide street food reviews. I am here to share with you the challenges faced by many brave street vendors and discuss what we can do to improve their livelihoods and economic well-being.

The street vending population in Cambodia is substantial, and a majority of them are women. In 2016, researchers from Yamaguchi University in Japan estimated, using Cambodia’s economic census, that 8.3% of all Cambodian enterprises are street businesses, and 76.6% of the people running them are women. Street vending businesses continue to grow.

Although there is little evidence explaining why street vending is predominantly female-dominated, it is an undeniable fact that Cambodian women still face cultural norms and social stigma. Many of them are engaged in unpaid domestic work, such as taking care of children, the elderly, and households. Despite improvements in women’s status over the years, those with limited education often end up working in the informal sector, including street vending.

Street vending plays a critical role in the commercial urban ecosystems of cities by providing employment and revenue for the least marginalized population groups. Despite women accounting for almost 52% of the total Cambodian population, according to the 2019 population census by the Ministry of Planning, available support for female street vendors and mothers is limited.

One immediate challenge faced by street vendors, especially in urban areas like Battambang, Siem Reap, and Phnom Penh, is access to childcare centres. You may have noticed street vendors putting their children in food carts, stalls, or even on motorbikes while they sell their goods along the streets. This situation is growing, and it poses significant risks to the children’s safety and their ability to attend classes and enjoy their childhood.

The lack of legal status and protection also exposes street vendors to abuses and harassment. If you talk to street vendors, many of them, if not all, will tell you that they have to pay for vending spots and protection. 

Food safety is a growing concern among street vendors in Cambodia. Street foods, being cooked and ready-to-eat, are linked to various bacteria and pathogens that cause nausea, vomiting, stomach cramp, diarrhea and cholera.

These risks often arise from prolonged exposure to traffic pollution, unsanitary surroundings, and lack of access to clean water and proper sanitation facilities, which can be attributed to the absence of appropriate vending spots. Some countries, like China and Thailand, even regard this as a national security issue to some extent.

Research findings suggest that street foods are the primary sources of food safety issues in many developing countries. Cambodia took a step forward by passing the food safety law in July 2022.

However, the absence of proper vending spots continues to hinder efforts to strengthen food safety in the Kingdom, posing risks to public health. Policy interventions are needed to address this issue.

As the majority of street vendors are women, they face enormous challenges every day, including harassment, lack of childcare centres, and limited access to social protection benefits.

Fortunately, these issues can be addressed. Prime Minister Hun Manet and his administration have the means and resources to improve the situation. Providing legal recognition and protection would safeguard the welfare and economic well-being of street vendors. It would also hold sub-national and local governments responsible for protecting and supporting the economic well-being of street vendors, while preventing harassment by opportunistic individuals.

The Phnom Penh municipality and sub-national authorities should consider implementing a system to provide safe and designated vending spots for street vendors. These spots should have access to clean water, proper sanitation facilities, and be away from traffic pollution to ensure food safety and public health.

Additionally, creating affordable and accessible childcare centres near vending areas would greatly benefit street vendors who are mothers. This would allow them to work without worrying about their children’s safety and education.

Furthermore, awareness campaigns and training programs on food safety and hygiene practices can be organized for street vendors. Providing them with knowledge and tools to ensure the safety of their food would not only protect public health but also enhance their reputation and customer satisfaction.

Support from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and international aid agencies can play a crucial role in addressing the challenges faced by street vendors.

These organizations can collaborate with the government to provide vocational training, financial literacy programs, and access to microcredit for street vendors, especially women, to help them improve their businesses and livelihoods.

This year, on the 11th International Street Vendors Day, Oxfam, together with our partners and other stakeholders, jointly celebrated the importance of street vendors in social inclusion and the recognition of informal economy workers, their needs, and their contributions to Cambodian society. We aim for an inclusive society in Cambodia, where no one is left behind.

To achieve this, we need inclusive and equitable social protection policies for all citizens. It is essential for the government, NGOs, and the community to come together and work towards creating an enabling environment for street vendors to thrive and contribute to the local economy while ensuring food safety and public health. 

Oxfam and our partners are ready to work with the Royal Government of Cambodia to make social protection a reality for street vendors.

Sophoan Phean is national director of OXFAM in Cambodia

The views expressed in this article are solely her own.