Rice Plus and Family Solidarity: Rural Cambodian Widows' Economic Coping Practices

Rice Plus and Family Solidarity: Rural Cambodian Widows' Economic Coping Practices

Susan Hagood Lee (Boston University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-4772-3.ch020
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Widows find their lives suddenly upended when they lose their husband. Widowhood is particularly hard in rural areas, where widows are often the poorest of the poor. This study looks at the economic practices of a sample of rural widows in Cambodia who supported their households with a “rice plus” strategy. They relied on rice grown on their own land supplemented by microenterprises that raised cash to fill the hunger gap. Children's labor and cooperation were essential to maintaining the widowed household. A widow with many children managed better than a widow with few or no children. Most widows with daughters were better off than widows with sons who moved away after marriage. Cambodian practices such as gender role flexibility and women's economic participation helped widows cope after their husband's death, while the devaluation of women's labor made life harder.
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Widows find their lives suddenly upended when they lose their husband. They have to deal with emotional grief at the loss of their life partner, the distress of their children, and the practical necessity to provide for the family on their own. Since women commonly earn less than their husband, widowhood means the loss of substantial family income. Women typically have fewer occupations open to them, and they pay less than those dominated by men. Widows have to navigate this gendered economic terrain and carry on in the face of diminished expectations for the future.

In the developing world, many people live in rural areas and rely on subsistence agriculture to provide for their family. When a rural subsistence farmer dies, his wife and children are left in very challenging circumstances. Gender role expectations often drastically restrict the economic options available to widows who may lose their land and other economic resources. The result is that rural widows and their children are often among the poorest of the poor (Chhoy, Touch, Kham, & Prak, 1995; Davenport, Healy, & Malone, 1995; Harma, 2015; Karamcheva & Munnell, 2007; Ledgerwood, 1992; Lee, 2006; van de Walle, 2013).

Widows predominate among older women in most societies due to the common patriarchal practice of men marrying younger women. Since men die at a younger age on average than women in most countries, many older people are widows. In developing countries, many younger women lose their husbands to illnesses, accidents, and war and must raise their children on their own.

It is often assumed that widows are cared for by extended family and have no need to work. In impoverished settings, however, many families are too poor to take in needy relatives or may be unwilling to support them. Some widows have little extended family available and by necessity must fall back on their own resources. Families may expect widows of working age to support themselves and their children. The outcome is that many widows must work for their living. The need to provide for their children, together with a gendered occupational structure that restricts opportunity for women, make the economics of widowhood an important social problem in developing societies.

This paper examines the economic coping practices of rural widows in Cambodia, looking at rice agriculture as the main source of food and the use of microenterprise income to fill the annual hunger gap. The author details the extent to which rural widows rely on their immediate family, and the variations in practice by age, ability, and family composition. The paper presents several women as exemplars of the diversity of ways widows cope in rural Cambodia. The data is taken from a larger study that explores widows' coping practices in detail including access to land, education, and credit (Lee, 2006).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Bilateral Kinship: A system of kinship in which children are considered to belong equally to both the father's and mother's side of the family. It contrasts with patrilineal kinship, in which descent is traced through the father's line; and matrilineal kinship, where descent is traced through the mother's line. It is the predominant form of kinship in Cambodia as well as in Western countries. Systems of inheritance and residence are often correlated with lines of descent.

Khmer Rouge: The indigenous insurgency (“red Khmer”) that overthrew the central government in Cambodia in 1975 and ruled Cambodia for four years, imposing an extreme form of agrarian communism. Education, religion, commerce, and money were eliminated, with teachers, monks, and businessmen executed at point blank range. The capital Phnom Penh was evacuated and the residents were assigned to communes to produce food. The leader of the movement was Pol Pot, the nom de guerre of Saloth Sar, who was exposed to communist ideas while studying in Paris. Rice production under Pol Pot was egregiously mismanaged, resulting in death by starvation for hundreds of thousands. Many thousands of other people were executed for opposing Khmer Rouge policies. It is estimated that 2.2 million people died under the Khmer Rouge before the Vietnamese army invaded in 1979 and took control of Cambodia.

Provas: The Cambodian word for non-monetary exchange or barter, a common means of exchange in poor communities with little access to money. In the Cambodian village economy, there are several sorts of provas such as transplanting labor exchange ( provas stung ) where a farmer will exchange transplanting for another service such as plowing; land exchange ( provas daiy ) where a landowner exchanges the use of an extra field for half of the harvest; and cow exchange ( provas koo ) where a villager cares for someone else’s cow in exchange for every other calf.

Microenterprise: A tiny business endeavor based at home requiring very small amounts of capital. Poor people throughout the developing world rely on such tiny enterprises to provide crucial income. Examples from rural Cambodia include gathering wild vegetables or firewood for sale, producing rice snacks or boiled potatoes for school-children, selling rice soup to workers, producing rice wine, taking mangoes from a backyard tree to market, producing palm sugar from nectar gathered from palm flowers, or weaving thatch pieces from palm leaves to roof a village house.

Hunger Gap: A period of weeks when the previous harvest has been largely consumed and before the new harvest comes in. Poor households often experience significant hunger during this time and go into debt purchasing food from their more affluent neighbors when it is most expensive. Poor rural families in Cambodia may eat only watered-down rice soup with little nutrition during these weeks. When their harvest finally comes in, they pay off their rice debt when rice is the cheapest, sometimes surrendering much more rice than they borrowed.

Rice Paddy: A field of shallow water in which rice is grown. It is surrounded by low dikes to retain the water and has a system of irrigation to maintain the proper water level. The water is shallow enough that the top part of the rice plant sticks out of the water. Paddy rice cultivation is the predominant form in Cambodia. Sometimes the term refers to the harvested rice before it has been husked.

Transplanting: The process of pulling up rice seedlings from a nursery bed and replanting them in a large field. The purpose of transplanting is to take the strongest plants from the nursery bed and space them evenly in the large field to get the highest yield at harvest time. In rural Cambodia, transplanting is carried out largely by crews of women that work together for several weeks in the planting season. They typically work one another's fields in turn until everyone's transplanting is accomplished.

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