This research examined the extent to which women’s ownership and management of water supply schemes led to their empowerment, including their economic empowerment, in rural Cambodia. Privately managed water supply schemes in rural Cambodia serve over one million people. This study is the first of its kind to systematically investigate the experiences and needs of female water supply scheme owners, using well-established theoretical frameworks for women’s empowerment, namely Longwe’s stages of empowerment, and Rowlands, VeneKlasen and Miller’s elaboration on different types of power. Business management frameworks relevant to the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector were also drawn on to assess operational constraints and enablers. Fifteen structured interviews were conducted with female water entrepreneurs in rural Cambodia. Female entrepreneurs reported encountering four key barriers to establishing and managing water supply schemes. The first were operational, and government and regulatory related issues, followed by financial issues and limited demand for water services. Three important enablers were reported by entrepreneurs: social enablers, economic enablers and program support from government, associations and non-government organisations (NGOs). This study found that, whilst there was evidence of empowerment reported by female water enterprise owners, the complexity of the ongoing empowerment process, challenges and limitations were also observed. Women’s empowerment can be advanced through leadership of, and involvement in water enterprises, as evidenced by this study, however, gender norms constrained women, especially with respect to mobility (leaving the home for extended periods), and household and family duties impacting on income-generating work or vice versa. As such, targeted strategies are needed by a range of actors to address such constraints. The findings of this study can assist NGOs, donors and governments incentivizing entrepreneurship in water services, to ensure that these interventions are not gender blind, and to draw on evidence of the barriers and enablers for female entrepreneurs and how these are influenced by contextualized gender norms.
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