Gender and development People
Asia's women in agriculture,
environment and rural production


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Key Facts

Cambodia's population is unbalanced, 52.6% are female and 47.4% male
21% of the population, or 2.2 million people, live in households headed by women
among the farming population, over 65% are women
women have dual responsibility for farm as well as household management
women have on average 20% lower literacy rates than men
women are actively involved in artisanal fisheries and manage small livestock
marketing of agricultural products is mainly done by women
women contribute actively to household income through petty trade, wage/exchange labour and handicrafts
women's contribution as family labour is undervalued and never included in accounting as work

General profile


  Males per 100 females

Source: NIS, 1995

Male- and female-headed

Source: Socio-economic
Survey of Cambodia, 93-94

Adult literacy rates
by sex and stratum

Source: NIS, Cambodia, 1997

Cambodia has a very young population of 10.7 million inhabitants. An average 44 percent are under 15 years of age; only 4% are older than 65 years. At present, the population growth rate is 3.1%, and the fertility rate 5.2%. Years of warfare and the purges of the Khmer Rouge have left Cambodia with a highly unbalanced mixture of men and women. Data for 1993 show that 52.6% of the population were female and 47.4% male.

The Socio-Economic Survey of Cambodia estimated that 21 per cent of its population, or about 2.2 million persons, live in female-headed households. The following graph shows the distribution of male and female-headed households, with a higher percentage in Phnom Penh than in rural areas.

Three decades of civil war have thus resulted in a large number of women as heads of households. This has caused a severely depleted agricultural labour force, leaving many women with the responsibility of farm as well as household management, and displaced rural families from their original land holdings (World Bank, 1997).


Adult literacy rates (women and men 15 years and above) are summarised in the graph at right. The graph shows that the literacy rate for men is on average 20% higher than that for women.


The economically active population consists of 48% men and 52% women. In the age group of 20-54 years in the rural sector, the female participation rates are very high, with over 80 percent of women in this age group participating in economic activity. This female participation rate is higher than the female participation rates in many countries of the region. In rural areas the economic participation of women from female-headed households is almost 90 percent.

Agriculture employs the largest proportion of the labour force (85%), followed by wholesale and especially retail trade, services, construction and manufacturing.

Human Development Index (HDI) rank of Cambodia is 156 of 174 countries, indicating a low life expectancy at birth, low educational attainment and low income. A Gender-related Development Index (GDI) rank has not yet been calculated for Cambodia.


Gender division of labour in rice farming
Tasks Male FemaleBoth
Clearing fieldx  
Making bundsx x
Preparation seedbedx  
Sowing seedbeds x 
Transport seedlingsx  
Transplanting xx
Irrigatingx x
Applying fertilizerx x
Weeding xx
Scaring birds x 
Harvesting xx
Transport paddyx  
Winnowing x 
Manual milling x 
Pounding x 
Marketing rice x 
Source: SAWA, 1995
Most Cambodian households depend on agriculture and its related subsectors of livestock rearing, fisheries and forest exploitation for their living. Crops account for about 60%, of agricultural output, with rice contributing about 40%, livestock 27%, fisheries 10% and forestry 3%.

In Cambodia, 65% of the farming population is female and 80% of these women work in the agricultural sector. Women took over traditional roles of men in the farming system, such as ploughing, during the war years and this has continued to the present time (Secretariat of State for Women's Affairs, 1995). In addition, women are responsible for marketing the agricultural produce in local markets.

Crop production

The predominant crop is rice, grown on over 90% of the currently cropped area. Four different rice crops are grown throughout the year, in four seasons: Recession Rice (mid-December to end-April), Irrigated Rice (mid-January to end-May), Pre-monsoon Rice (May to mid-August) and Monsoon Rice (August to mid-December).

Traditionally, the first stages of rice cultivation are male-designated and the latter stages female designated. However, the traditional task division has changed due to lack of male labour. Women are thus increasingly involved in traditionally male tasks, such as land preparation, irrigation and treshing.

Apart from rice, rural households produce vegetables and tend palm trees for sugar and wine production.


The low estimate for the forestry subsector may be explained by the fact that an important part of production (and trade) goes unrecorded. Firewood is the most common fuel. Firewood collection is mostly done by women, but they are sometimes assisted by men.


Fishery resources in Cambodia fall into three main sectors: the Great Lake or Tonle Sap, fished full-time by minority Vietnamese and Cham; local and family-based fishing in the dense network of streams, rivers and flooded areas; and marine offshore fishing (UNICEF, 90).

Fishing is an activity men are actively involved in. Women and children also fish on a smaller scale in canals and small ponds, and women market the fish. Most households have fishing nets and the activity is becoming more popular (SAWA, 95).


Animals constitute an important source of family income. Most families keep livestock, their numbers mainly determined by the availability of animal feed and land for foraging. Pigs, chickens and ducks as well as eggs are normally sold for cash to purchase goods rather than being eaten regularly. Larger livestock like cows and buffaloes are rarely consumed for meat, but used as draught animals in the fields. Therefore a family's stock of animals represents its savings and reserve resources and not its main source of supplementary food (UNICEF, 1990).

The gender division of labour in livestock management is quite rigid. Men care for and utilise draught animals, like oxen, cows and buffaloes. Women care for, manage and sell small livestock like pigs, chickens and ducks. Nowadays, women who head their household and lack sufficient male labour utilise draught animals to plough (SAWA, 95).


A number of environmental trends have an impact on rural livelihood in general and on women's lives in particular. Women are usually disproportionately affected because they are more dependent on natural resources in order to carry out their farm and household activities. In many provinces a process of soil degradation is apparent due to depletion of essential minerals, resulting in low crop yields. High yielding rice varieties substitute local rice varieties, and there is a risk of loss of agrobiological diversity. In this context, women's traditional knowledge and skills in seed selection and preservation need to be acknowledged. In addition, the use of pesticides is increasing. Improper handling of pesticides and residues of pesticides in the ecological system create health risks. There are some indications that fish stocks are declining, reducing the availability of fish to rural households. There is also widespread, often illegal, logging in forest areas, reducing forest resources available to households as well as leading to soil degradation.

Rural production

Off-farm activities are undertaken by both women and men. Women earn a regular income through wage labour, exchange labour, petty trade and handicrafts. Men derive income from wage labour, especially non-agricultural and migrant labour, fishing and also some handicrafts. Men's off-farm cash income is often seasonal (SAWA, 1995).

Food security

Agricultural productivity levels are low in Cambodia in comparison with neighbouring countries in Asia. The low yields can be attributed partly to the lack of or poorly engineered irrigation and water management facilities, partly to poor soil fertility conditions and also to a lack of effective pest control practices. The country's food production is also highly vulnerable to the effects of adverse weather conditions, such as drought and floods. The Royal Government of Cambodia recognizes food security as the first development priority. The profile of gender roles in Cambodian farming systems bears evidence that women are key contributors to household food security.

Policy and planning focus

The Royal Government of Cambodia aims to achieve equitable development and social justice through sustainable economic growth, human resource development and sustainable use of the country's natural resources. In order to achieve the above in the context of agricultural and rural production, policymakers and planners need to:

Programme focus

Agricultural and rural programmes in Cambodia need to include in their activities the following areas of intervention, in order to achieve effective programmes that address both women and men's priorities:


Economist Intelligence Unit. 1997. Country Report Cambodia.
NIS. 1997. Demographic Survey of Cambodia. PhnomPenh.
NIS. 1995. Report on the Socio-Economic Survey of Cambodia 1993/1994. Phnom Penh.
SAWA. 1995. Up to the Sky. A Study on Gender Issues in Irrigation in Cambodia, provinces of Takeo and Prey Veng. Ahlers and Vlaar, The Netherlands.
Secretariat of State for Women's Affairs. 1995. Cambodia's Country Report, Women: Key to National Reconstruction. Phnom Penh.
TCI. 1994. Cambodia. Agricultural Development Options Review (Phase I). Sector Review. FAO. Rome.
UNICEF. 1990. Cambodia: The Situation of Children and Women. Phnom Penh.
The World Guide, 1997/98
World Bank. World Bank Atlas, 1996, Washington DC.
World Bank. 1997. Staff Appraisal Report. Cambodia Agriculture Productivity Improvement Project.

For more information, contact:

Regional Rural Sociologist/Women in Development Officer
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific
Phra Atit Road, Bangkok 10200, Thailand
Telephone: (662) 281-7844; Facsimile: (662) 280-0445; E-mail:

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