In the Khmer folktale “Phnom Chiso Temple,” a Hindu priest gives blessings to a Khmer prince, saying: “May you be as strong as an ant, as mighty as a ghost and as decisive as a woman.”
Following this as an example, after fishery communities were established in Kampong Cham province’s Kang Meas district, the head of the communities decided to invite women to join to help with the conservation work.
Ky Sopheap, a 50-year-old mother from Kang Taneung commune, seems to bare such a character like the Hindu priest portrays women in the folktale when she does her work as a fishery activist.
“I decided to become a fishery activist because there are not many women who help crack down on illegal fishing,” she says with pride. “This is also to show gender equality and to show that women can also do work like men.”
Sopheap says she is the only female among six fishery activists in her commune’s fishery community.
“When I have accompanied male fishery activists to confiscate illegal fishing nets, the police were proud of me and some even gave me money,” she says, adding that her team has recently confiscated and burned 16 illegal nets.
Sopheap says illegal fishermen fight back every time the fishery community cracks down on illegal fishing activities.
“We’ve met a lot of obstacles,” she says, “but I am not scared.”
She says sometimes illegal fishermen tried to crash their boat into the fishery community’s boat and even wielded machetes to threaten her team.
“I told them: ‘You are doing illegal activities, so we must confiscate your fishing nets’,” she says.
However, she says police officers and fishery officials would join the patrol each time when the fishery activists searched for illegal fishing activities.
“[Illegal fishermen] shouted ‘How dare you! Aren’t you afraid that your rice fields will be burned down’?’’ she says.
Sopheap says the district authorities noticed her active participation in social work and appointed her to work on the Kang Taneung Commune Council to solve disputes.
“I am happy with my work,” she says. “I hope there will be more fish in the future.”
Like Sopheap, 30-year-old Say Sidoeun from Sdao commune has also joined her husband to help the fishery community.
She says she and her husband have volunteered to stay at a kiosk to guard a conservation lake at night.
“Sometimes, I am worried about my two small daughters,” she says. “I am afraid they will fall into the water.”
Apart from fishing, Sidoeun says she and her husband do odd jobs to supplement their income to feed their family.
“We told illegal fishermen that they should use legal fishing tools to catch fish,” she says, “If you cannot catch enough fish, you can do construction work to earn more money.”
Kang Chheng Korn, in her late 40s, says she has joined the fishery community but that she only handles financial work to make sure that the fishery activists have money to buy boats, life jackets and other tools needed to do their work.
In addition, she says as a teacher she has also helped educate villagers and children about conservation and the environment.
“If we don’t educate people and children, there will be no fish in the river in the future,” she says.
Eang Nam, head of the fishery communities in Kang Meas district, speaks highly of the female fishery activists.
“They work very hard without any salary,” he says, adding that an activist receives $2.50 to buy water and snacks when they go on a patrol.
Nam says fishery communities were established by the Fishery Department across Cambodia in 2000. There are 22 fishery communities in Kang Meas district alone.
“Out of around 1,000 fishery activists, between 200 and 300 activists are women,” he says.
The head of Kang Meas district fishery communities says the activists have been trained on conservation, environmental protection, gender awareness and reporting.
He says the Earth Journalism Network through the Cambodian Environmental Journalism Network has recently trained a group of fishery activists on how to work safely and how to report to the media and authorities on illegal fishing activities and environmental issues in general.
“Female activists rarely join crackdowns on illegal fishing,” he says, adding that many of them just help with making reports.
Despite their work for 20 years, Nam says illegal fishing activities continue due to insufficient crackdowns and a lack of cooperation from local authorities.
“Sometimes, the authorities do nothing when we report illegal fishing,” he complains. “That’s why illegal fishing is still happening.”
However, he says the work of fishery communities is still needed to slow down illegal fishing activities.
“It’s better to have such fishery communities than not having them,” he says. “Otherwise, illegal fishing activities will happen at will.”
Chhay Chhom, chief of Kang Meas district’s Kang Taneung commune, acknowledges that illegal fishing has happened in his commune and other communes across Kampong Cham province.
“We have a lot of work to do. We cannot keep an eye on all illegal fishing activities,” he says.
However, Chhom also admires the work of the fishery communities in helping stop illegal fishing activities.
“It is a good thing for my commune to have fishery communities and fishery activists,” he says.