Cambodia's Disabled Fight Poverty, Inequality
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.