Friday, December 26, 2008
New Hope Centre
On Tuesday, I went to take some clothes to an NGO here in Siem Reap. Wenning, a friend from secondary school had come for a visit and she kindly brought over a big bag of used clothes at my request. She had posted the request on her Facebook profile and got a whole lot in no time.
I had found out about the New Hope Community Centre from a Swiss customer, Simone, who has been volunteering there. Simone is a nurse and volunteers her time to treat sick people in the village where New Hope is located.
We took off on our bicycles and rode far past the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital, past the Angkor authority park and then turned right onto a dirt road. This is Mondul 3 Village. Here you can see karaoke shops where young girls work at night.
Besides the sick room, New Hope centre also provides English, sewing and computer classes, the last one taught by monks.
I accompanied Simone and another French volunteer to see a woman and her two year old daughter. New Hope gives this family rice and vegetables every few days.
It was a 10 minute walk through a narrow path and along the way, we bumped into two old women. One was very chatty. She grabbed my arm and kept telling me in Khmer to get Simone to learn Khmer, because she really wanted to be able to communicate with Simone. This old lady, perhaps in her 60s, was so cute. She said if Simone switches on her TV to channel 5, she can learn Khmer. She was sure Simone would enjoy the Cambodian dancing (“ruam”) on that channel.
Then we passed another old woman and the old woman whom I had been chatting with whispered, “This poor woman, she has no house, no land, and one day somebody stole her child and sold it for $500”. Then she put her finger over her lips to signal we should not talk more about it.
We finally arrived at the house. It was not as bad as some I had visited in Phnom Penh. It was a large single room, even though it was made completely of leaves. And it had no latrine. The woman’s two year old stood at the door. She was tiny, and had a distended stomach—obviously malnourished.
I spoke to the mother and learned she has 12, yes 12, children. Some are in Bantey Manchey, three in Phnom Penh, and some are working in Siem Reap, as what I do not even want to know, since they have no education and are desperately poor.
The next two younger ones, a 14 and 18 year old, were working as domestic slaves for the neighbour opposite. I asked if they get a salary and the woman said no. However, the NGO suspects the girls are also forced to work at the karaoke bars at night to earn their keep and this is the most worrying thing.
The woman said she had to send her daughters away because at least they get food and lodgings, which is more than what she, as their mother, can provide. I was told this woman is crazy, sometimes screaming, howling at the moon. And who can blame her. She is probably mentally ill from the stress of providing for her last child, thinking of her future and guilt-ridden at the thought of the suffering of her older daughters.
I do not blame the woman for having 12 children, even though she is obviously not in a position to take care of them. No, I have imagination and can emphathise with this woman, dirt poor and uneducated, having to depend on a man, her husband, to take care of her. I can imagine what it must be like to be her, to live with someone who insists on having sex without thinking about the consequences, creating children they clearly cannot bring up, even as one after another is given away. This is why one of the best things we can do for this country is to spread awareness on contraception. When a woman is in control of her body, she will be in control of her life.
But I do blame the man. Unless he does not know how children are formed, he has to accept responsibility for his family’s situation. Even if he cannot afford condoms, as is likely to be the case, surely practicing the withdrawal method is something within his power to do.
Yes, I blame her husband. A moment’s pleasure turned into a lifetime of hell for his children, all 12 of them.
An interesting point is the frequent response I get when I assign blame in this country: “You cannot blame so-and-so, they are poor.” For instance, when Sipha stole from Bloom and when Ming Vee, our housekeeper stole from me, I was told by many people, “You cannot blame them, they are poor; it’s the survival instinct.”
Of course I can blame these people. There are many poor, yet honest people, Cambodians included. Let’s be clear: it was not poverty that drove Sipha and Ming Vee to steal—it was greed. And in Sipha’s case, it was greed coupled with arrogance, the belief that she would get away with it, as she had done in previous instances.
As if being poor is the get-out-of-jail card. As if being poor absolves you of all responsibility for your actions. There are some things that are still blamable: as I said, even if the husband cannot afford condoms because he is poor, it is within his power to withdraw, and even abstain. At some point people have to take responsibility for their actions and the rest of us have to make it clear to them, instead of giving excuses for their behaviour. How else are people going to learn that being poor does not entitle you to be selfish or greedy or behave in any other way that causes harm to others?
This lack of blame, of social stigma and the lack of enforcement to hold people responsible for their actions contributes to social breakdown in this country. In a "proper" country with proper laws, a man who abandons his family will be prosecuted by the law; he will be held legally responsible for abandoning his family. In this country, he can just up and leave with no consequences. In a proper country, he will be tracked down and brought to court, but in Cambodia, he can create a new life for himself elsewhere, sometimes with another woman, often starting yet another family. As I mentioned in another post, a Cambodian man tried to dump his seven children at an orphanage so he could start a new family with a new wife.
My Khmer friend Thyda tells me many marriages are informal because many do not get legally married. Marriage licences are a recent phenomenon. Previously people would get married without that piece of paper. Part of the problem is ignorance of the law, but I am sure another part is that it costs money to get legally married. Chhun Hy tells me "it is not so expensive, maybe USD5 or USD10" to register your marriage with the sangkat (local police), but even USD5 or USD10 is beyond the reach of many poor Cambodians who live in the countryside.
This is the other problem--the police here, because of their low pay, try to make money however they can. Many of the laws exist as ways to extract money. I cannot say enough how corruption ruins this country.
But on to more practical matters at hand: What to do about the teenage daughters and others like her? You can contact New Hope here if you would like to donate money or volunteer with this NGO.
For me, the best thing I can do for women like these, and they are everywhere in Cambodia, is to provide good jobs.
I don’t know if people know but that is the reason why I am here and why my target group was originally single mothers—because children of single mothers are especially vulnerable to being trafficked. A World Bank consultant who interviewed me on Bloom for their “Pro-Poor Tourism” project expressed surprise that I specifically chose single mothers around 40 years old. Everyone else she spoke with wanted young women, between 17 and 23. Well, she has pinpointed the exact reason: because this group of women is the one who find it hardest to get jobs.
I have to say I have expanded the criteria and Bloom now also hires young women, women such as Theary, who was hired from Riverkids , the anti-child trafficking NGO run by my friends in Singapore. Theary is a polio victim and is the daughter of a single mother, a blind woman, who also has a son.
As for this woman’s two teenage daughters in Mondul 3 Village, I am thinking if New Hope can train them to sew, I am happy to sponsor a sewing machine. I cannot, however, guarantee income for these two young girls, as I know Bloom will not be immune to the financial meltdown. Next year will be tough for us, as it will be for many, many businesses.