Behind The Scenes: Researching Disability Inclusive Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in Cambodia

4 min read
A landscape photo of Navy, 29, Kro Lanh Village, Orussey Commune, Kampong Tralach District, Kampong Chhnang Province, Cambodia, April 2019.
Image: WaterAid/Sokmeng You
Author: Pharozin Pheng. Contributions from Rithysangharith Has (WaterAid Cambodia) Vannda Slout (Cambodia Disabled People’s Organisation) and Ngoun Sopheakanika 


In Cambodia, people with disabilities, and women and girls often experience barriers to accessing water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH). This leads to WASH services and facilities that do not fully meet their needs. Women and girls with disabilities can also experience double discrimination, based on both their gender and their disability. WASH policies need to support disability and gender inclusion and act as a guide to deliver WASH programs and services. 

Over the past year, WaterAid has been working as part of a research team on a project called: “Translating disability-inclusive WASH policies into practice: lessons learned from Cambodia and Bangladesh”. We are a unique research group made up of WASH practitioners, people with disabilities and researchers. Being part of this unique research team, a first for some of us, has had a big impact.

The project, which started in 2019, is a collaboration with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM, lead researcher is Jane Wilbur), in Cambodia and Bangladesh, and is funded by the Australian Government’s Water for Women Fund. It aims to systematically explore national policies and policy implementation relating to WASH access for people with disabilities. The study also examines these policies from a gender perspective, looking at their outcomes for women and girls with disabilities and caregivers.

In collaboration with the national Cambodian Disabled People’s Organisation (CDPO), the Cambodian research team has supported a global literature review; interviewed 16 people with disabilities; four caregivers of women with disabilities and 12 key informants from national and provincial government officials, implementers and Organisations of Persons with Disabilities (OPDs).

Ngoun Sopheakanika, or Kanika, is one of the researchers. She lives with a disability herself and reflects on the experience:

Being part of the research, I have learned more [about] how people with disabilities in the rural remote areas have challenges access to WASH, including no clean water available in their surrounding community, no close bathroom and no information related to WASH. I could not imagine how they manage their hard life.

Because of COVID-19, the team couldn’t travel to the province to do the interviews in person and had to do many interviews online or via the phone. This was extremely challenging because unstable of digital and phone connections, poor connectivity during rain, noise disturbance, and challenges for participants to have enough money to use a mobile phone.

Throughout the research, the team have found that national-level policymakers were positive, and have said they hoped the study will help them implement inclusive WASH nationally.

Vannda Slout is an activist from Cambodia Disabled Persons Organisation (CDPO) and said:

WASH service providers have known about issues through the interviews – it is raising awareness too. I think it is important for all types of disabilities to have the opportunity to tell their stories and recommendations

A team that includes WASH, disability specialists and academics is vital when doing research on the topic. For instance, CDPO has been able to inform participants about disability services and social protection mechanisms.

“This study is really important for WASH in Cambodia, especially on disability inclusion. We have limited evidence on inclusive WASH. This study also tells the barrier which persons with disabilities faces, as well as inform recommendations to the WASH sector”. Rith, a WASH practitioner from WaterAid Cambodia.

All of the team involved in the research have high hopes for improving disability-inclusive WASH.

“In the future, I hope to see people with disabilities in particular those who live in the rural areas can access WASH without any barriers”. Kanika said.

“All development partners and donors should be taking actions to respond to recommendations of the findings and provide support to persons with disabilities through working in partnership with Organisation of Persons with Disabilities. If we all respond to those issues, persons with disabilities will be able to access WASH,” said Vannata.

Our aim with this research is to draw out the lessons, examples of good practice, bottlenecks and areas that could be strengthened. We aim to produce guidance for policymakers and implementers about how to deliver WASH for people with disabilities at scale. However, the most important thing to us right now is providing a safe space for women and men with disabilities to share their experiences with us. It has been a privilege to hear the personal stories, challenges and lives of women and men. We have learnt so much from their experiences and will use them to improve WASH practice.