Disabled Farmers Fight for Equality

Inspiring farmers are failing to let their disabilities hamper their harvesting as they aim to elevate the nation’s organic growing movement.
Eam Sothea checks her farm in Takeo province’s Kaoh Andaet district. Kiripost/Meas Molika
Eam Sothea checks her farm in Takeo province’s Kaoh Andaet district. Kiripost/Meas Molika

“We don’t want others to see our disabilities, but our abilities,” said disabled farmer Eam Sothea, who overcame barriers and discrimination during her journey to become a role model farmer in her village in Takeo province’s Kaoh Andaet district.

Discrimination against disabilities, an inability to secure employment, and an unwillingness to hear the word disability pushed her to stand strong against life struggles to become an outstanding farmer in her community.

Sothea, 29, was born with a disability in her right arm. She said before reaching the success in farming she enjoys today, she stayed with a disability non-government organization (NGO) in Takhmao City from childhood until 2015.

She then moved out of the NGO shelter to pursue her life with her loved one in the city to carry out jobs, such as working in a garment factory or in restaurants. Unfortunately, Sothea and her husband were unable to find employment.

Without work in Cambodia’s capital city, she decided to relocate to her hometown to live with her mother in Angkunh village, Takeo province.

Em Sothea family in Takeo province. Kiripost/Meas Molika
Em Sothea family in Takeo province. Kiripost/Meas Molika

While she faced unacceptance from others, Sothea found a new passion while in her hometown – becoming an independent farmer. And she failed to let her disability dampen her spirits and prevent her from following her dreams.

In support of his wife, Sothea’s husband, Pal Sophea, posted a family photo on Facebook asking for supports from NGOs. The online call reached an Australian NGO, who gave them hope of flourishing their dream in farming.

In 2016, Global Village Housing (GVH) recognized the challenging livelihoods of Sothea and Sophea and saw their ambition to launch their own agricultural business. The Australian NGO bought a plot of farmland, about 30 meters wide and 70 meters long, next to her current house.

When GVH asked her and her family what they would do with the house and land, she replied, “We want to have a pond and a plot of land to grow vegetables to support our own livelihoods as I am disabled and I cannot migrate far away. Because of discrimination, I cannot find a job as I’m handicapped.”

She believed the only way to make income is through self-employment and saw investing in growing vegetables as the best choice, especially for her as a disabled woman.

She added, “We love farming. It’s our dream since we met each other [as a couple] for me to plant vegetables. First, I don’t have to travel far [for work], I can stay close to my family and I can decrease expenses, as well as help my community cut down on buying vegetables from outside [imported vegetables].”

Around her home, there are a variety of vegetables growing, such as beans, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes. In addition, two small ponds raise fish and to store water for irrigation, and Sothea also raises chickens and ducks.

About to give birth to a second child, Sothea, already mother to a six-year-old daughter, told Kiripost she used to plant vegetables around her home on a small scale just to be able to support her family’s daily meals.

However, in late-2020, she joined the community of World Vision’s MASE2. The project equipped her with knowledge about safe-modern-agricultural skills and the tools to improve her capacity until she is able to harvest many fruitful plantation products.

In 2022, she was named ‘role model female farmer’ for her contribution to villagers within her community.

“I never have expected that I’m able to plant more like today. I used to grow plants on a family scale for eating only. After I joined the project, I learned much more from the trainers. They also help me to find markets selling those vegetables and guide me with planting techniques,” said Sothea.

She believes today she is more able despite the fact her disability has worsened since she was born. “What motivates me is I don’t want others to see my disability, I want them to see my abilities. Even though I’m disabled, I can grow vegetables without being co-dependent on others. The more people discriminate against me, the more I can overcome obstacles. Right now, my family is a success and take pride.”

Sothea said before she did not oversee family finances, but after taking part in the project has learned to manage them, as well as pass on financial literacy to fellow villagers.

“After I learned from my trainers, I start taking note of every single expense on every item purchased and my revenues to sell. Then I realized how much I can save every month.”

Sothea won second place as outstanding female farmer based on her real-life experiences and inspiring stories with her husband. She is also seen as a caregiver for kids around her commune for her vegetable planting and introducing the concept of recycling waste materials, such as car tires, cans, and cardboard.

The competition of role model farmers for community of the MASE2 project, organized by World Vision (WV), evaluated the winner through their story of struggle and how family members motivated each other. It also assessed how well candidates are willing to contribute for better growth of their community regarding to farming techniques.

However, Sothea said what discourages people in her village is water shortage, lack of modern planting methods, and a poor perspective on plantations. “The villagers think that the shortage of water is a problem for farming. So, they wait until it rains to start planting seeds. I used to think of doing agriculture co-dependent on the weather. Also, they think there is no need to plant their own as they can spend 1,000 to 2,000 Riels to buy it [vegetables].”

The people in community have since changed their behaviors and perspective after hearing Sothea’s story.

“I’m so delighted they can grow their own vegetables. Firstly, it can decrease their expenses and secondly, they realize clearly what the original planting processes are. So, they can have healthy meals in the family.”

Agriculture plays a significant role in Sothea’s life. She explained, “Agriculture is very important since it helps me to transform my mindset and family. It helps elevate my family as people recognize my family and our livelihood.”

Now she can stay near her beloved mother and take care of her daughter at home. She can also do household chores with time to grow her crops without worrying about having to emigrate to the city for work.

Her husband, who has a disabled spine, 34-year-old Pal Sophea, works at NGO Marist Solidarity Cambodia, and was a pupil at the same NGO for about 10 years. He said he is proud to see the achievements of his wife as the first female handicapped farmer to win the second place of outstanding farmers.

Sophea also takes some free time from his work to assist his wife in planting crops and providing her with motivation.

“She stays at home and if she doesn’t have any jobs to do, it’s not good. Even though agricultural activities require us to work under the hot weather, we are still cheerful about what we are doing. It is our work and we will attempt to do it continuously.”

He admits working as an employee and being self-employed in agriculture are very different. “If we work for others, we can only get a salary. If we are self-employed, the more you work, the more income you can gain.”

The blind farmer

Chhoem San is a farmer who has been blind in both eyes since the age of 10 due to measles. He lives in Takeo’s Bourei Cholsar district and also grows vegetables for a living.

Prior to this, he was a palm tree climber, who scaled up to 20 palm trees daily with his hands when he was an energetic young man.

Despite being unable to see, the 71-year-old can use his hands and other senses to grow a variety of crops and feed animals, with the help of his 68-year-old sister and 32-year-old nephew.

Chhoem San has been blind in both eyes since the age of 10 due to measles. Kiripost/Meas Molika
Chhoem San has been blind in both eyes since the age of 10 due to measles. Kiripost/Meas Molika

"At that time, at full strength, I was able to climb 20 palm trees [which is] equal to 10 kilograms or 15 kilograms of palm sugar. By the time I stopped climbing palm trees and started planting, it was also farewell [for profits]”, said San.

The elderly farmer added that in 2021 he participated in WV’s Mase2 to learn about agricultural tools and techniques. He noted that traditional farming is more difficult, while technical farming is much easier in terms of watering crops and gaining higher yields.

San’s aim is to see Cambodian farmers grow organic vegetables without having to buy produce on the market that use chemicals with unknown sources.

He said, "They come to sell more [vegetables] and can use chemicals because we do not have [our own vegetables]. If we have [vegetables] they will not come to sell them. That's why I joined the movement and plant safe vegetables so our neighbors can grow [crops] together."

San added that disability and hardship are not obstacles for him or others, as long as they persevere and do not give up.

San believes most Cambodians do not concentrate on healthy vegetables and prefer to buy imported crops rather than planting their own. He hopes to inspire others to change this to achieve a better, healthy lifestyle.

“We should adapt our techniques in modern safe farming and push for more movements in growing safe vegetables to avoid health harms. If we continue to buy and consume imported vegetables with high chemicals from other countries, we face deteriorating health.”

San is calling for more attention to be paid to people with disabilities in society, where no one should be left behind.

Andreas Zurbrugg, the Australian Embassy’s deputy chief of mission in Cambodia, noted the positive impact of the project in assisting poor farmers to build their capacity and link up with agricultural cooperatives and other farmers to provide healthy vegetables at better prices for consumers.

“If we can increase the output and quality of products that are produced across Cambodia, this is an important part of the economic growth and recovery of the country as a whole. It also supports the broadest growth of farms abroad based on small farms,” Zurbrugg said.

The Mase2 project helps support farmers by providing vegetable shelters, greenhouses, and water pipes. It also guides villagers, especially women and disabled citizens, to learn about modern techniques. WV says this will improve the economic empowerment of 5,502 male and female farmers in Takeo and Kandal provinces.