Tuesday, February 24, 2009

When the non-marginalised becomes marginalised

One day, I had an interesting discussion with my boss, who is the Country Representative of the NGO I am volunteering for. She lamented on the fact that so many NGOs, donors and government institutions are giving so much attention to HIV/AIDS programmes that those who are inflicted by less severe diseases such as diabetes are being ignored.

Then I started to think about what she said and realised that at a certain level, there is a lot of truth in it and it doesn’t just stop at HIV/AIDS. Not so long ago, I was talking to a Cambodian colleague of mine while we were visiting Tom Dy Centre, a shelter for women rescued from human trafficking and sexual exploitation. I was somehow amazed by the comfort and infrastructure at the centre and when you step out from the centre, the surrounding area is much closer to the reality in Cambodia; bare, under-developed, poor road condition with flimsy and small wooden houses built on thin poles. This is just a few kilometres away from Phnom Penh city centre.

When I asked my colleague about the community’s perception and reception towards the women, she told me that while some may be inclined to  disparage them, many do harbour some form of jealousy. It is not surprising since many of them are struggling to make ends meet while the women at the centre are being given free health care, vocational training courses and reintegration packages to help them start their own small businesses.

Adoption of  orphans is extremely popular in Cambodia. It is common to see Cambodian children dressed up in decent clothing and sent to international schools. Although these children are being given a chance to have better education and standard of living, the majority of Cambodian children drop out from schools  before the age of 12 in order to help their parents support their large families, especially girls.

I recently had the opportunity to meet the Executive Director of a local NGO called the Health Centre for Children. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that their reintegration approach  for trafficked and sexually exploited children are very different from others which I have come across. Their approach is very much about integrating community needs and ownership whereby families and communities of the reintegrated children all get a piece of the pie. The NGO will provide loan or other forms of incentives to help develop the community as a whole. In addition, community-based activities such as campaigns and group sessions to talk about issues concerning human trafficking and sexual exploitation are held regularly. All these activities will help to inculcate a common sense of responsibilities towards protecting the children.

For me, this is obviously a more effective and sustainable approach towards preventing further exploitation of children. For a start, it tackles the root cause of the problem. The majority of women and children are being  trafficked or sold as slaves  because of poverty. If you want to get rid of this form of modern-day slavery, you have to develop the community and provide the children with education.

In a country like Cambodia where more than 90 percent of the population live beneath the poverty line, it is hard not to think that nearly all of them are marginalised, in our standard. For the average Cambodian who barely makes more than USD40 a month, it doesn’t help them to think that one must be a victim of some sort of severe crisis, chronic disease or crime in order to receive help and attention. For the majority of them, better infrastructure, employment, education, basic health care, food and water will help improve their lives tremendously.

I am not saying that those whose lives have been tragically compromised by HIV/AIDS, trafficking, forced prostitution, disability and other hardships do not deserve the attention we are giving, but I think it is time for humanitarian institutions to adopt a more community-based programmes so that the non-marginalised will not end up being marginalised.

Friday, February 20, 2009

All freedom comes with responsibilities

Do not disturb2

Over the last few days, many things have been said and many opinions expressed about the unfortunate incident on the circulation of Elisabeth Wong’s nude photos and video. Elisabeth has since then resigned from her position as both Selangor State Exco Member  and State Assemblywoman for Bukit Lanjan. She has issued a press statement and letter on her blog, pleaing the public, especially the media which continues to haunt her, to leave her and her family alone and in peace.

Elisabeth’s departure from her office is another addition to the already fragile and tragic state of Malaysian politics. As someone who shows great commitment to human rights and serve the public with their interest at heart, her resignation is a great lost to Malaysians, especially those who fall under her constituency. 

I have read many comments posted by people in Malaysia on my Facebook account and today, I came across someone who wrote that he cannot understand how some of us, who purportedly claim to support press freedom and yet condemn the distribution of Elisabeth’s photos. He further expressed that the media has the right to persist with its reporting, although he acknowledged that it is an invasion of her privacy. What came as a shock was that the Malay Mail has apparently published her home address.

Somehow I believe that many people like this particular person, are confused about the real meaning and spirit of press freedom. For them, freedom of press means having the absolute right to publish anything, even at the cost of invading one’s privacy. What most people don’t realise is that when human rights activists fight for the freedom of anything, they don’t forget about all the responsibilities that come with it.

Press freedom is only one example. When we ask for the right to own land, it doesn’t mean one can go and grab another person’s land. When we ask for the right to speech, it doesn't mean one can verbally harass or defame another person. When we ask for the right to have a family, it doesn’t mean one can forced another person to marriage. Very often, a person’s freedom ends when another’s begins and this is when we need to have the moral consciousness and wisdom to judge who has the responsibilities and who has the right to their freedom.

Press freedom is important because it concerns the public’s interest. If there has been an abuse of power or breach of public trust by someone who holds a public office, then it is in the interest of the public to know. Elisabeth Wong’s case is entirely different because her private life has absolutely nothing to do with the public.

Malaysia, a country known for suppressing press freedom and impartial reporting, has once again proved to us that it lacks precisely this kind of wisdom and if not, common sense. While trying to gag the media from reporting independent and fair information concerning the public’s interest, it has on the other side of the spectrum, allowed the tabloid to mercilessly manipulate and exploit another individual’s private life.

No words can describe this sorry state of our country’s government.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A woman’s dignity is in jeopardy and it is our moral obligation to protect her

A woman’s privacy, dignity and physical integrity have been violated. As a woman myself, I would like to show my solidarity for her.

A few days ago, Elisabeth Wong, a Selangor State council member, became a victim of a criminal act, an act which was both malicious and undeserving. Photos and a video showing her in compromising circumstances were circulated publicly with the intention to ruin her reputation and dignity. Many would say, so what? She’s not being molested or raped. Where’s the crime here? The crime begins when they were distributed without her consent and with malicious intent.

Many people were quick to point that finger of judgment at her, particularly politicians from the ruling party, naturally. Unfortunately, by relishing in her misfortune and humiliation, they think that they will be able to rise up in the eyes of the public.

Well, here’s news for you. These male politicians – the fact that you have jumped so quickly on the perpetrators’ side proves how you have all reduced yourself from being a real man and a fellow human beings. Instead of showing compassion and trying to protect a woman’s virtue and honour, you chose to ignore them and glorify the criminal, because at the end, your reactions have fulfilled the  latter’s intention. Elisabeth is not supposed to be punished. What crime did she do? With this, what difference does it make between you and the culprit?

By trying to win this political war, you rejoice on other’s suffering and forget about what it is being a fellow Malaysian and human being. Shame on you and those who will continue to support you. Being a Malaysian, I am ashamed that my fellow  countrymen have reduced themselves to this level.

For the public, I would urge all of you to ignore these photos, and instead try to help protect what’s left of Elisabeth’s dignity. The photos are already out, there’s nothing much we can do, but we can still prevent further damage to her dignity  by not soliciting them. You have a moral obligation not to participate in this and to protect Elisabeth’s privacy.

If a woman does not want you to see her naked and if you insist on doing so, isn’t that a crime? Yes, nobody can stop you and nobody will know because you have the privilege of searching for them in the privacy of your room. But about Elisabeth’s privacy? Did she allow these photos of hers to be viewed by everyone? Did she say that you can look at it?

Elisabeth Wong is a daughter, a sister, a niece, a cousin, maybe an aunt and above all, a woman.Try to exercise your moral conscience to choose what is between right and wrong. Help to protect her dignity as a human being.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

When puppy love turns life into a bitch

Like many girls, I had a crush on my Bahasa Melayu teacher when I was 13. He was young and just fresh out of teacher training college. He must had been around 22. He was handsome, soft spoken and what probably attracted me most about him was his position of authority. The boys in my class seemed so juvenile and silly compared to him.

Like many girls at that age, I romanticized about a relationship with my teacher. I would listen to him attentively in class and when he caught my glance, I would blush and looked away with my heart pounding violently like a drilling machine about to explode.

I can’t remember much of what happened during that period of time, which subsequently led to an indescribable and vague “courtship” where subtle exchange of chemistry were felt and known only by both of us. At that time, my intention was none other than mere childish fantasies; content with and flattered by the attention given by someone older and of the opposite sex. I was occupied with the thought that this particular teacher liked me more than just a student.

One day, I received something in the post. When I opened it, it was a stalk of flower and a note from my teacher. When you are at that age, the only logical interpretation of such gesture is a declaration of love or perhaps some form of romantic adoration.  I remember that somewhere in between the feeling of being surprised, happy and excited, I was confused and disturbed. Even as a child, I couldn’t help but question the intention of my teacher. Why would he go through such trouble of sending me something like this?  Wasn’t the chemistry enough? I certainly did not expect him to go beyond what was felt in between learning classical prose and writing karangan (essays).

My mother of course asked me who sent me a parcel that same day. Unable to lie, I told her that it was from my teacher. I also remember that what happened next was so fast and yet stayed so vividly in my mind until today. My mother simply went berserk and started hurling all sorts of questions at me. “Who is this teacher?” “Is it a man?” “What did he send you?” “Why is he sending you this?” “Did you do anything with him?”  “Have you gone mad?” “Why is he sending you this?”

Every questions were answered truthfully but not without tears pouring from my eyes, mainly out of fear as well as anger. My mother intimidated me into surrendering that stalk of flower, much to my protest and a lot of “He likes me", that’s all!”

As soon as my mother had her hands on the flower, she ripped it up so fiercely that I thought she might have done the same to me. Then she looked at me in the eyes and said something like, “You think he likes you? He’s a teacher and a man much older than you! You’re 13 and his student. He is not supposed to send you things like this. He’s trying to trick you into sleeping with him.”

All I could do was cry and in the end, my mother made me promised her that I would put an end to this “relationship”. I was never a rebellious child and I did what I was told and that was the end of it.

Now that I am 32, I am able to look back and thank my mother for what she did. I would never know what were my teacher’s intentions. He might have sincerely liked me but what would it lead to when I was only 13? My mother might have been right. He could have been a bad man with bad intentions. I shiver just to think about what could have happened.

Whatever it was, I was lucky for two things; firstly,for having a mother who was there to watch over me  and secondly, I was obedient enough not to do something potentially stupid without thinking of the consequences. Unfortunately, not all girls have the same privilege.

It is easy to understand how young children can be easily lured into surrendering themselves to complete strangers as well as people who are familiar to them. Many child sex offenders understand this very well and adopt precisely this kind of tactics to get children to commit sexual activities with them. All it takes is a bit of attention, flatteries and gifts to ruin an innocent life.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The 21st century slavery (Part VII)


There is a traditional Khmer saying, “If Heaven could cry, then Cambodia would never know drought.” Today, I heard Heaven’s cry.

This afternoon, I sat at a meeting with AFESIP, discussing our next action plan for a market research we have been doing for the past few weeks. We have prepared two separate sets of questionnaires to be answered by rescued victims of human trafficking and forced prostitution sheltered by AFESIP, and vocational training centres run by government and non-governmental organizations for disadvantaged women. The purpose of these questionnaires is to consult the women’s views on what sort of training skills would interest them as well as to understand the reality of the job markets in Cambodia.

We took a field trip to Kandal and Kampong Cham provinces last week to visit a girl, formerly a resident of Tom Dy Center, who is now running her own hair salon in Khsach Kandal district and the Women Development Center (WDC) run by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kampong Cham. We soon realised that our interview with the manager of WDC ran on for more than one and half hours. We figured that we need to be more efficient with our questionnaire as we are going to interview more than two hundred respondents in the next three weeks.

At the meeting, we discussed about the number of residents in each shelter in order to ascertain the number of days needed to carry out the interview. AFESIP runs three such shelters in Phnom Penh, Kampong Cham and Siem Reap. We are unable to ask the residents to fill in the questionnaire since many are illiterate and instead have to rely on staffs and volunteers to carry out face-to-face interviews. When we asked AFESIP how many residents are taking training courses in their centre in Kampong Cham, they told us 12 although there are 35 residents in total. We then wondered what the other 23 women do at the centre.

Reluctantly, one of AFESIP’s staffs told us that the rest are three to five year-old girls. I was unable to disguise my shock and bewilderment, much to the discomfort of my Cambodian colleague who was sitting next to me. He whispered shamefully into my ears that this is Cambodia and it is common to have girls that age to be sexually exploited. In a way, I wished that I hadn’t display such shock and remorse so openly because many Cambodians I  met often feel shameful towards the atrocities committed in their country. It feels almost as if the whole country is so overwhelmed by countless account of tragedies from poverty to human rights abuses that they believe these tragedies only happen here.

When I looked down at the questionnaire in front of me, all those questions asking the women whether they would like to run their own businesses, or whether they prefer to learn silk weaving, etc. seemed so obscene. These questions are not meant for a 3 year-old because she is not meant to be in the shelter to begin with.

I know for a fact that child sexual  exploitation is not uncommon here. I read it on the paper almost every other day about which sex offenders have been prosecuted and I see campaign posters on the back of tuk-tuks around the city. But not until I hear it with my own ears, do I begin to hear the cry of Heaven so loudly and heart wrenchingly.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Is mercy killing merciless?

A recent act of a father who put his comatose daughter to sleep has caused a public outrage in Italy. Eluana Englaro, a 38 year old woman, had been in a persistent vegetative state since a car accident in 1992. Her father fought repeatedly in court for the right to end her life and it wasn’t until yesterday, she finally died at a private clinic after a high court ruled in favour of his wish. Euthanasia is illegal in Italy, a country which is pre-dominantly Catholic.

Euthanasia has always been a point of contention between two factions; those who are pro-life and then the others who are pro-choice. Putting aside religious point of view, I can see why euthanasia is not a clear-cut issue; mainly because it can be opened to abuse. Take for example, a wife of a rich man may initiate euthanasia on her comatose husband too quickly in order to claim her inheritance. On the other hand, miracles do happen where you have a person who simply wakes up after years of being fed by a tube.

Having said this, what if the person is 80 years old and you have the whole family who cannot afford to keep him hospitalised for long? Do you sacrifice the livelihood of those who are still young and healthy to keep one who has lived his life? What about if someone who is suffering from a terminal illness and asked to be terminated? Do you choose life over the quality of life?

I think there is no straight answer as to whether euthanasia is morally right or wrong. It is irrational for a judge, religious authorities or the public to make such a decision for anyone in that situation. Unless you have someone you love who are left in a vegetative state or in extreme constant pain, can you begin to understand the issues which revolve around making such decision. If there is no malice in such a case, I think we need to try to understand the burden of those who have to make and take that decision.

Not too long ago, I had to make that decision when my 15 year-old pet dog was badly injured in a fight. Being in an under-developed country, nothing much could be done by the vet. Watching her suffer in pain was too  much to bear and it took me some time to make the decision to end her suffering. Even though it was a dog, it filled me with a lot of sadness and above all guilt by putting her life in my hands. So, I can imagine how much more painful it must be for those who have to do the same for a human being. I don’t think it is fair for others to judge and condemn the people who have to bear this kind of burden. It is always easy to  criticise and blame others when you are not in that position.

Eluada’s father had to endure watching her daughter being reduced to a lifeless body for 17 years. Do we know what he had to deal with during this period of time? Do we know how he felt?

To me, Eluada is not the only victim here.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Seeking justice at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal was created in 2003 and after more than 5 years, it seems that the trials of the five main defendants are finally gaining momentum in the past few months. Many have questioned the validity of the tribunal; mainly the time taken to prosecute the accused war criminals, fearing that justice will never be attained if the defendants die before any verdict is pronounced.

When you look at the amount of time taken to try less severe individual criminal cases, one can easily understand why it took so long for this tribunal to finally “do something”. However, from the limited knowledge I have about the work progress of this tribunal, I can’t help but think that the tribunal has started off with shaky foundations and unnecessary bureaucratic entanglement which have all contribute to diminishing its role and credibility.

When the UN was asked to establish the tribunal, the government of Cambodia did not welcome it with open arms. The latter insisted on having full involvement and control over the tribunal. I can certainly understand this, especially when the UN’s mission in Cambodia (UNTAC) did not leave behind a good impression on the government. In addition,  the government has always looked at foreign intervention with much scepticism and very little faith. However, it is also fair to say that the Cambodian government would not have the capacity and resources to carry out such a huge task alone.

After very long discussions, a compromise was finally agreed upon that the tribunal will be implemented jointly by the UN and the Cambodian judiciary, and held in Cambodia. This seemed to be an ideal arrangement since it would be right to have the participation of local people who truly understand the situation and as actual victims of the Khmer Rouge regime.  One would have expected that two brains often work better than one, but in this case, it was too many cooks spoil the soup.

Since then, the tribunal was confronted by criticism and controversy of corruption which resulted in foreign aid being cut down while legal paperwork continue to pile up. With the limited pool of qualified legal officers, mainly due to the lack of funding, many inexperienced legal assistants and clerks took over the role of taking evidence and witness statements.

Now, some prosecutors have insisted on adding more people to the list of defendants, receiving much protest from the government. The prosecutors reasoned that responsibility should not be limited and placed solely on top officials who ordered the execution of victims but also those who had carried out the order. The government claimed that it will take more time if this is to be carried out.

This is a difficult issue to be reckoned with. On one hand, the Cambodian people are getting impatient and frustrated with the pace of the tribunal, not to mention that the latter has lost a lot of credibility. On the other, is it right to send out a message that those who were merely carrying out orders should escape punishment? The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, in which the Khmer Rouge Tribunal relies upon, clearly stated that command responsibility is a crime.

I think that somehow, the tribunal has lost its essence and visibility. Instead of focussing on seeking justice, it has wasted a lot of time and money on solving internal problems. Let’s hope that the victims do not need to wait much longer as the trials begin this year. If anything else, let’s hope too that the UN will learn some lessons from this.

Monday, February 2, 2009

BBC slammed for refusing to air appeal for crisis in Gaza

After the ceasefire between Hamas and the Israeli government in the past few weeks, many aid appeals have been launched by various organizations. Tens of thousands of people in Gaza are left homeless as houses and buildings were being bombarded to shreds. Medical supplies are running low for those who are injured and many more  are waiting for food and shelter. Unless we want more people and children to die from injuries, diseases, malnutrition, dehydration and starvation, sufficient aid needs to reach them as soon as possible.

BBC was recently criticized by many including the British members of Parliament, for its decision not to air any aid appeal for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Its justification was that they want to be seen as impartial in this crisis. Their logic seems to lie on the assumption that if they air such an appeal, the world would think that they are on the Palestinian side.

I think BBC stands to be corrected on its understanding of humanitarian aid. The humanitarian concept itself carries the notion of non-political and impartiality which is one of the reasons why the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) has long being seen as one of the leading humanitarian institutions, given access to many political hotspot areas. The whole concept of humanitarian law was created after the founding fathers (mainly Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman) of ICRC saw the number of injured and dying civilians and soldiers at the Battle of Solferino. He and several others thought that whether the injured person was a soldier, prisoner of war, civilian, child or woman, he/she deserved to be given medical treatment.

In order to simplify the concept, I shall provide you with an example of a doctor. In essence, a doctor’s main duty is to provide treatment to his/her patients regardless of gender, political affiliations, etc. Such duty is seen to be so important that doctors are being stationed in prisons, refugee camps, conflict areas, etc. It is not a doctor’s job to determine who deserves medical treatment or not, even if the person is convicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. This is where the principle of impartiality comes about.

So when the BBC justified its refusal to air humanitarian appeal for Gaza by claiming that it wants to remain impartial, not only has it defied its moral obligation as an international broadcasting agency, it went against the whole principle of providing humanitarian aid. When it comes to giving humanitarian aid, it has nothing to do with who is right or wrong, whose side is it on but simply because it is a necessity.

By taking a stand that it wants to be impartial and hence willing to compromise the tens of thousands of people’s life is not being humanitarian and in a way, not being impartial. True impartiality comes about when one does not judge or care  who or where is the person from but by virtue that he/she is a person in need of aid.  By saying that we don’t want to be seen as supporting Gaza can be interpreted as we want to remain impartial to the Israeli government. At the end of the day, a huge majority of Gazans who are in desperate need of aid are those who are not responsible for the conflict.