"I’ve proven I can run this business and raise my children as a single mother”

At the front of her house in Kampong Chhnang province, Ms Ouch Chanthan (42) warmly welcomes visitors into her veterinarian shop – a bright space with pink walls, where she sells medicine and vaccinations to the area’s livestock farmers. At the back of her house sits a large plot of land on which she raises her own pigs. “It’s a good job for me,” says Ouch. “I like it.”

Opening this shop in August 2017 was a big career step for Ouch. Five years ago, her husband sadly passed away and Ouch was left on her own to raise their five children, aged between 5 and 18 at the time. To make matters worse, the income she earned from picking rice and raising pigs back then was not enough to cover her children’s education costs once he passed away. “I didn’t know what to do because he was the one bringing our main income through his job as a village animal health worker. That money stopped coming when he became sick and we spent the small cash from selling rice on his medication,” she recalls. “Once he was gone there was nothing left – only debt.”

Committed to supporting her family, Ouch took over her husband’s business as a Village Animal Health Worker (VAHW), a role in which she would provide health information to local livestock farmers and support them in maintaining their animals’ good health with various services, including vaccination provision, providing biosecurity guidelines, and explaining proper animal feeding and breeding. However, Ouch faced a tough barrier – the community was not interested in her service because they lacked confidence in her skills and capacity. “How could you know your husband’s job?” they would ask her. “I was frustrated,” says Ouch, in a contrastingly calm voice. “I may not have taken a specific animal treatment course, but I stood by my husband throughout his whole career and I knew what he did. I knew I could do his job.”

Building her skills

Ouch spent the following years determined not to give up hope in continuing her VAHW career. In 2016, she joined the European Union-funded Civil Society, Authorities and Markets for Sustainable Community Animal Production, Livelihoods and Environment (CAM 4 SCALE) project, which aims to improve the livelihoods of over 50,000-smallholder livestock farmer across 8 Cambodian provinces, including Ouch’s home province of Kampong Chhnang. One way the project achieves this is by strengthening the veterinary sector and building the capacity of new and existing VAHWs through the provision of trainings. The sessions cover technical skills, such as providing vaccinations, and business development skills, such as drafting a marketing plan.

Ouch took part in both trainings and found the marketing and business promotion session most useful. I became more strategic with the business and prioritized building trust with my customers. When they saw I could do the job, I asked them to be references and to give my phone number to other livestock farmers they knew that might also need my services.” Ouch is also grateful for the technical sessions because they restored her confidence in her ability as a VAHW. “After years of not practicing, it was good to have an overview of the technical skills. I learned how to diagnose specific illnesses in animals, how to provide and store vaccinations and which medicines were appropriate for each illness.” Now she leads training sessions to livestock farmers on her own as a service.

After completing the trainings and applying her newly gained knowledge into her business, Ouch began to see results. “In the first three months, I earned just over 500 USD from my veterinarian services. This is a big jump - the year before that it was only about 25 USD month,” says Ouch, with a wide smile.

An example for women and single mothers

When asked how she feels of her journey over the past 5 years, Ouch says she is “overjoyed” and that she plans to keep building the business with her children close by so that they can take it over one day. “That way, if I am not here one day they will know how it all works. I don’t want them to have the same hardship that I experienced.”

Ouch strongly believes there are many roles women can accomplish just as well as men, especially in the veterinarian sector. “I’m an example,” she says, with her hands held up and gesturing to the vet shop. “I faced hardship but now I can raise my kids and send them to school while running this business. Other women can do the same.” 

Author: Samrawit Gougsa, PIN Cambodia Communications Officer (EU Aid Volunteer)