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.

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