“The other farmers laughed at me” recalls Teik Voeut, taking time from her weeding of the family’s small field to talk to us. She has been experimenting with a new rice planting technique to increase rice yields and improve efficiency. Even though her husband was supportive, he also laughed. But when the new rice grew successfully, he was convinced.

Teik Voeut is one of two women from her village, Takom, who attended SRI (System for Rice Intensification) training. The new technique is being introduced by Oxfam GB’s partner, Aphiwat Strey (or Women Development in English). The non-governmental organization operates in Battambong province in northern Cambodia where annual droughts and floods punctuate life, and the environment is harsh. The average annual income for a rural family is about US$100, and some 35% of the population lives in poverty. Aphiwat Strey works to improve men’s and women’s sustainable use of natural resources in predominantly rural Cambodia where 85% of the rural population are farmers.

The men of the village were not eager to attend the training. “They thought they were too busy and didn’t want to try” says Teik. But for her, trying was not a big gamble. “I could only lose one seed!” she recalls, laughing. The technique requires only one rice seed instead of the few that farmers usually use for planting. And the gamble seems to have paid off. Teik spends less time ploughing and weeding and is now a model farmer within the village. She welcomes others to come and learn from her experience.

“Women are more willing to apply new techniques because they are more trusting (of new ideas)” reflects Aphiwat Strey’s agriculture officer, Pok Sarveasna. “Then men follow when they see the results”. The fact that women are primarily involved in seeding, weeding and harvesting also makes them ideal candidates to be trained as “model farmers”. Yet agriculture programmes worldwide tend to be designed by men for men even though women are just as or even more involved in farming. In Cambodia, 65% of the farming population is female.

Moreover, it’s usually men who make the decisions in farming and men who control inputs like seeding and credit. For example, the Takom Village Development Committee is dominated by men. Although the chairman of this committee is sympathetic with the needs of women, female village members do not feel the popularly-elected committee understands their point of view or represents their interests. And even the land which both Teik and her husband farm is registered only in his name, although she wants them both recorded on the title deeds.

Herein lie the challenges for Oxfam and its partners: How do you promote opportunities and leadership for women in places where men tend to dominate, and policies, practices and beliefs tend to discriminate against women? How do you ensure that both men and women benefit equally from community development initiatives? How do you do this in a way that encourages women to actively participate in all aspects of the project, especially decision making, without increasing their burden?

For Oxfam, a key approach is ensuring both women and men equally participate and benefit from all aspects of the community’s development and that they share in control, decision-making and access to the resources. Oxfam’s work often means providing opportunities and support for women to fully participate both as decision makers and beneficiaries. Women’s role in the community – both actual and potential – needs to be recognized. Such opportunities come about not only through directly supporting women, but also by convincing men and the community that everybody benefits when both women and men share equally in all aspects of community and family life: whether the tasks or the decisions are on the farm, in the house, in the community or at the national level. Promoting equality between men and women is not only a community development issue but a human rights one as well.

Back in Takom, Teik and her husband will apply the SRI technique to their entire rice crop next year. So will their daughter. In the meantime, they need to figure out how to make up a short-fall of 13 sacks of rice that they will need to survive until the next harvest. Despite the success of the new technique, severe floods in 2003 decreased their overall output, which will make paying back loans more difficult.

There are many changes now happening in modern Cambodia affecting farmers in ways they cannot control. Cheap imports of rice from Viet Nam undercut their market while environmental changes have made the annual cycle of flood and drought less predictable. This ancient way of life is less stable than ever before. New rice planting techniques are just the start for families like Teik’s to take control of their lives and decide their futures that will really ensure sustainable and secure ways of making a living as rice farmers in Cambodia.