This was first posted at The Malaysian Insider on 20 February 2011 under the title “Marginalising the non-marginalised”.
I once had an interesting conversation with my former boss who was then the country representative of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) I was volunteering for in Phnom Penh. She lamented that too many NGOs, international aid agencies and government institutions are giving too much attention to HIV/AIDS programmes.
So much so that those who are afflicted by less notorious diseases such as diabetes are being neglected despite the latter killing more people each year. According to UNAIDS, 1.8 million people died of AIDS in 2009 while 3.4 million people were reported to have died of diabetes in 2004 according to WHO’s statistics and this number may very well have doubled by now.
Then I started to think about what she said and realised that on many levels, there is a lot of truth in it and it doesn’t just stop at HIV/AIDS.
Part of my volunteering work involved working with staff from Tom Dy Centre, a shelter and rehabilitation centre for women rescued from human trafficking and sexual exploitation in Cambodia. I had visited this centre several times and was amazed by the level of comfort provided by this well-equipped and relatively modern centre but as soon as I stepped out of it, the surrounding area looked more like the rest of Cambodia; bare, under-developed, poor and dirty.
The roads in the area were appalling and could easily succumb to flooding if there was a heavy downpour and needless to say, the wooden houses around the neighbourhood were old, small, flimsy and completely weather-beaten. It was safe to assume that they would not have been able to protect the three little piglets from the big bad wolf. This scene is just a few kilometres away from Phnom Penh city centre.
When I asked my colleague about the community’s perception of the women at the shelter, she told me that while some are inclined to look down on them, many actually harbour some form of jealousy towards them. I was not surprised since most people living in the community are struggling to make ends meet while the women at the shelter are given free regular healthcare, vocational training and reintegration packages to help them start their own small businesses.
It’s difficult to imagine that any of these women would want to return to their previous life as a village girl waiting on her family hand and foot. I also can’t help but wonder whether such new “improved” living conditions would help them readjust easily to their former lifestyle.
I don’t know whether it’s Angelina Jolie who made adoption “sexy” because it is extremely popular in Cambodia. It is common to see adopted Cambodian children dressed up in OshKosh B’gosh and Gap Kids while being enrolled in international schools that seem to have mushroomed in the capital city to meet the demands of a growing expatriate community.
Although these local 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. Not unlike Thailand, the burden of taking care of the family falls on the daughters’ shoulders more than the boys.
I had the opportunity to meet the executive director of a local NGO called Health Centre for Children. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that their reintegration approach for trafficked and sexually exploited children is very different from other NGOs in Cambodia. Their approach is very much about integrating the victims’ needs with the needs of their community and at the same time, cultivating a collective sense of ownership and responsibility amongst themselves. Families and communities of reintegrated children are rewarded for developing and improving their economic condition and thus preventing their children from being trafficked and sold into the sex trade.
In a nutshell, all of them get a piece of the pie.
The NGO will provide a 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 inculcate a common sense of responsibilities towards protecting the children.
To 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. Hence, a more effective method of preventing this form of modern-day slavery is to develop the community first and at the same time, provide the children with education.
In a country like Cambodia where more than 90 per cent of the population live beneath the poverty line, it is not hard to think that nearly all of them are marginalized in one way or another by our standard.
For the average Cambodian who barely makes more than US$40 a month, it doesn’t help them to think that one must be a victim of some sort of tragedy, chronic disease or crime in order to receive assistance. For the majority of them, better infrastructure, employment, education, basic health care, food and water will help improve their lives tremendously.
By no means am I saying that those whose lives are being tragically compromised by HIV/AIDS, trafficking, forced prostitution, disability and other hardships do not deserve the amount of attention the world seems to be giving, but I think it is time for humanitarian institutions to adopt more community-based programmes so that the non-marginalised will not end up being the marginalised.