Home > Local News > Cambodia’s Disabled Fight Poverty, Inequality

Cambodia’s Disabled Fight Poverty, Inequality

Landmine explosions/casualties still affect thousands

Cambodia remains littered with millions of unexploded devices left over
from 30 years of civil war, the brutality of the Khmer Rouge and
conflict with Vietnam.

The government itself believes that as
many as 2 percent of the country’s 14.7 million people are disabled with
landmine casualties a significant proportion.

Poung Mai, who
lost both legs when he stepped on a landmine, is one of those victims.
He and Chhum Sopheap, who has suffered from polio, are seated on the
ground in the midday sun next to the ticket kiosk inside the entrance
gates to the National Museum in Phnom Penh with a basket of books to
sell, each one carefully wrapped in plastic to lessen the inevitable
damage from perpetual sun and dust.

They are among more than
60,000 physically disabled in Cambodia who struggle against poverty,
discrimination, unequal access to education and employment and an
under-funded and under-resourced state support system.

Cambodia
is one of the poorest and most landmine contaminated countries in the
world and the challenge of achieving economic inclusion, education and
rehabilitation of the disabled is considerable. Numerous demining
organisations, such as the Cambodian Mine Action Center, are steadily
working to clear the country of millions of unexploded bombs and
ordnances in rural regions, especially in the northwest close to the
border with Thailand.

With 80 percent of the population residing
in rural provinces, the prevalence of landmines has significantly
reduced access to agricultural land, forests and water resources, and
led to one of the highest rates of disability in the world as people in
farming communities are maimed and killed as they go about their daily
lives.

According to the Cambodia Mine Victim Information System
(CMVIS), there were 286 landmine casualties in 2010, an increase on the
244 reported in 2009 and 271 in 2008, with 15 new casualties in January
this year. It estimates that since 1979 there have been 63,821 mine
casualties, which corresponds to 39 landmine deaths and injuries every
week for 31 years, with about 44,000 survivors.

Poung Mai is from Prey Khmoa village in Prey Veng province where his family were rice farmers.

“During
the civil war in Cambodia, the government [Khmer Rouge] arrested me and
I was made to work in forestry, woodcutting,” he said, “and then I
stepped on a landmine.” He was 28 years of age when both legs were
amputated.

“After I stepped on the landmine, it was difficult,”
he continued, “I went around begging everywhere, at the market, to feed
my family.”

Poung has seven children. In 1990 he was removed by
authorities to a center that provided food and shelter, but no prospect
of livelihood. He subsequently left and found his way to Phnom Penh,
where he continued to beg until he joined the Angkor Association for the
Disabled in 2009, an organization of people with disabilities founded
by Sem Sovantha, who suffered double amputation by a landmine, to
provide shelter and training to members and campaign against
discrimination.

Chhum Sopheap, also from Prey Veng province, came
to Phnom Penh in 1997, sleeping on the streets until he started selling
books at the National Museum in 2007.

Both say that the very
small income they earn from selling books, on average $4.00 per day,
enables them to rent a room and leave behind homelessness, which is
often accompanied by alcoholism, mental ill-health, hunger and disease.
Belonging to a disabled organization has also marginally improved their
experience with the public, they say.

“When they are not with an
association,” Sem Sovantha explained, “there is a problem with the
authorities. When they have an association, people will accept them and
talk to them.”
However, negative social attitudes and discrimination
toward the disabled, such as physical harassment, social ostracism and
economic exclusion, remain widespread.

Chhum claims that he
mostly receives a positive response from visitors and tourists at the
National Museum, “but the official in the area is not so happy about us,
because he thinks it is not appropriate for us to be selling to
tourists.”

Local tour guides also attempt to dissuade visitors from being patrons.

“The
customer would like to buy,” Chhum explains, “but the customer believes
the tour guide when he says ‘no, no’, because at another shop the tour
guide will get a commission.”

According to a 2009 ILO report,
“People with disabilities are among the most vulnerable groups in
Cambodian society. They lack equal access to education, training and
employment. While many workers with disabilities have considerable
skills, many have not had the opportunity to develop their potential.”

The
Cambodian government introduced a Law on the Protection and Promotion
of the Rights of People with Disabilities in 2009 to support the right
to employment without discrimination, and in the same year adopted a
National Plan of Action for Persons with Disabilities, including
landmine survivors, in order to better address needs and provide
services. The stated priorities of the Ministry of Social Affairs,
Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation include strengthening and expanding
welfare and rehabilitation services for the disabled, but, according to
the Cambodian Disabled Peoples Organization, lack of human and financial
resources has hindered real progress toward these goals, although the
work of NGOs has resulted in the provision of more vocational training
courses.

“Social acceptance and social attitudes toward disabled
people and landmine amputees can be improved step by step through the
Royal Government having a Disability Law and National Plan for persons
with disability,” a CDPO spokesperson said, “The problem in Cambodia is
that we have the laws, but no budget to implement them.”

In the
meantime, Chhum Sopheap and Poung Mai strive to sell their books, many
of which are biographies and stories of Cambodians, like themselves, who
have struggled through the tragedy of the Khmer Rouge era and are
determined to not only survive, but live to see a better future.

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