Three women changing the game for Cambodia’s next generation of girls

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(From left to right) National Bank of Cambodia director-general Chea Serey, Edemy co-founder and CEO Sovan Srun and Green Lady founder Hok Sovanvotey. UNDP Cambodia

As we look towards building an equal generation, we need voices and initiatives that can spark action. We need innovation to accelerate the speed of development, in both new and existing organisations. And, importantly, we need it to be led by those who understand the power gap firsthand.

In celebration of International Women’s Day 2020, here is a look at three women innovation champions working across the UNDP Cambodia Accelerator Lab’s priority areas – public service innovation, youth employment, and waste management – to advance gender equality in Cambodia.

Chea Serey

She introduced blockchain to Cambodia’s banking system to increase financial inclusion for women.

Serey is the director-general of the National Bank of Cambodia and one of the Kingdom’s strongest champions for women’s economic empowerment.

Since 2017 she has led the introduction of blockchain to Cambodia’s banking system through the Bakong Project. Bakong, which is planned to officially launch this year, will connect domestic payment service providers and enable safe and fast money transfers and electronic payments. This has the potential to impact women across the country.

However, introducing a change as significant as Bakong to an entire sector has come with its challenges. “It shouldn’t be innovation for the sake of innovation,” she says. “It needs to add value to the society as a whole. I need that strong conviction to be able to convince my team to believe in this shared vision and to collectively achieve our goal.”

For women in Cambodia, achieving this goal will mean the power of financial inclusion. “Because it is peer-to-peer in nature, every transaction is free of charge. This is empowering for women to be able not only to earn but also manage her own finances from afar, making sure that her hard work is put into good use.”

Srun Sovan

She created accessible education technology to increase female participation in the STEM fields.

Sovan is the co-founder and CEO of Edemy. She created Edemy with an ambitious goal: to provide equal access to quality education for everyone. Of Edemy’s three education technology products, learning app Tesdopi is perhaps the most famous. Over 20,000 students across Cambodia use the app to diagnose their current level of understanding and close learning gaps in STEM subjects. The users spending the most time on the app are women.

They are often restricted by societal barriers to attending classes and pursuing careers in mathematics and sciences. “It’s not on the top of your mind that you would go into computer science because there are no role models that you see to show you this is something you could do. Society also says, oh you’re a girl, you shouldn’t work in that area. It becomes ingrained in the subconscious,” says Sovan.

On bringing technological disruption to education, she is unwavering in her drive, “it’s important that we dedicate our resources to help level up the playing field, so that everyone can have a fair chance, have fair access to education.”

Hok Sovanvotey

She introduced sustainable menstruation products to empower women’s health and environmental choices.

Sovanvotey is the founder of Green Lady, the pioneering social enterprise to bring washable pads and menstrual cups to women and girls in Cambodia. In a world where women are disproportionately affected by environmental challenges, her goal is to empower them to understand and take control of both their health and their impact on the planet.

Encouraging women to start initiatives in areas such as waste management requires financing opportunities and strong conviction to confront societal barriers that exist for women to start businesses. “The first time I posted about my pads on Facebook I was ashamed of my product. It was the purpose behind it that allowed me to post. It’s for the girls. It’s for the women,” Sovanvotey shares. “I think to do something [innovative], it’s to understand why you’re doing it. You have to carry the purpose along with you.”

In the enterprise’s first two years of operating, Green Lady diverted an estimated 12,000kg of plastic from landfills, along with providing women’s health and green living training to women across the country.

The UNDP Cambodia Accelerator Labs, working in close collaboration with UNDP’s Promoting Decent Youth Employment and Building an Enabling Environment for Sustainable Development projects, is seeking to bring together innovation champions like Serey, Sovan and Sovanvotey with other key stakeholders. Their initiatives to encourage youth upskilling, to manage waste and to deliver public services more effectively are critical to the trajectory of Cambodia’s development path.

If we want to truly change the game not only for women and girls, but more broadly for the development of the country, we need to ensure that the women championing innovation are given equal seats at the table.

Anika Funk is a communications consultant at UNDP Cambodia.