Zeroing in on zero

Aug 05, 2013

A family who receives assisSouk Seoung sits with the six children she is raising. She received governmental support.
Story and photography by Jo Lynn Garing

Since the 1990s, Cambodia’s under-five mortality rate has fallen from 121 (per 1,000 live births) to 51 in 2010. This past February, the nation and UNICEF showed Kiwanis and other visitors how they’re battling remaining threats, including maternal and neonatal tetanus, to achieve the goal of zero preventable child deaths. Two topics—malnutrition and disease—were reported in the August 2013 issue of Kiwanis magazine. Here, the publication continues its coverage of the groups’ experiences at other child-mortality battlefronts, including poor sanitation, unstable family conditions and the vulnerability that puts children at risk of abuse, trafficking and child labor.

Meeting water and sanitation needs

Student council members, dressed in navy and white uniforms are excited to show off a new water and sanitation facility at their Samroung Kandal Primary School. Previously, the school had three toilets in very poor condition, with no wastewater treatment and no hand washing facilities. The new facility has a self-contained wastewater treatment system and a hand washing area.

“We collaborated with BORDA (Bremen Overseas Research and Development Association), because we found it does something very unique,” says Belinda Abraham, chief of the water, sanitation and hygiene section for UNICEF Cambodia. “They put together a facility that treats all the waste on-site. If you want to have toilets at all the schools, you need to manage all this waste. If you don’t have a system that manages all the waste, then if one person is sick and it gets into the water system, it affects everybody.”

In more than 10,000 schools in Cambodia, 42percent do not have a water supply and 21 percent have no toilets. However, even if the schools have water and toilets, they are often in very poor condition or not functioning.

Abraham says that school-based water and sanitation is a priority for UNICEF.

“We hopefully would see this type of system as a standard for Cambodia,” she says.

Providing protection

The active, smiling two-year-old boy reaches out his hand, says, “Hello!” and then, “money, money?” in English.

In Sihanoukville, many children work on the beaches selling souvenirs, food or massages or begging to help support their families instead of attending school. Working on the beach subjects the children to a number of serious child-protection risks, such as physical and sexual abuse, child labor, substance abuse, poor nutrition and unsafe migration and trafficking.

But this two-year-old boy is at M’Lop Tapang, a nonprofit organization working with UNICEF on child-protection risks. After greeting a few people in the room, he goes back to playing Legos with some of the other toddlers.

More than 2,200 street families in the beach town of Sihanoukville are finding assistance through outreach services, education, vocational training, arts and sports activities, drug prevention programs and community shelters.

By working closely with the street families, M’Lop Tapang’s social workers develop ways to get the parent working and the children in school.

For example, a mother living in the slums of Sihanoukville had to quit her job at a factory so she could stay home with her youngest child. Her older children were not in school and instead collected scraps of trash to sell as a way to support the family. Social workers helped the mother enter M’Lop Tapang’s Home Based Production Program to learn to sew. After three weeks, she was given a sewing machine to use in her home. She now sells her items at the M’Lop Tapang Shop, which provides her with a steady income and enables her older children to go to school.

Supporting families

Souk Seoung is raising six children. Five boys and one girl. From 7 to 13 years old, with twins that are nine. None of them are hers. The children are cousins from two sets of parents, and she is their aunt. The parents left for Thailand in search of work. She hasn’t heard from them in years and doesn’t really know what has happened to them.

Seoung is a rice farmer. When she was little, she attended school for a couple of years. But then the Khmer Rouge came into power in the mid-1970s, and the infamous communist regime destroyed schools; executed teachers, intellectuals and professionals and forced entire populations into labor camps. Seoung never went back to school.

Until about six months ago, she owned land where she grew rice. But then one of the twins got sick, and she needed money to pay for medical services. There is no public health center near her village, although one is currently under construction. She sold all her land for US$100 to pay for the boy’s health care at the private clinic. The boy is now healthy, but his illness left her with no real way to support herself and the six children.

The children all go to school. Public school is only a half day in Cambodia. Children either attend in the morning or afternoon. When Seoung’s children return from school, they work for farmers in the village, collecting rice straw. On a good day, they might each earn 50 cents. The young girl hopes to be a teacher. One of the boys wants to be a police officer. Another boy wants to be a doctor. The other boys want to do construction work. Their aunt would like them to learn English, but she currently has no way to afford classes at a private school. Her biggest worry is ensuring the children have enough food to eat.

But the children’s unreliable income isn’t enough to support the family. So the local government stepped in to help. Through social service mapping, they identified Seoung and her family to receive support.

Officials work with the Council for Women and Children and the village elders to draw a map of each village. Once the map is created, the group works together to assess social indicators for each household. These indicators include: Does the home have access to clean water; does the home have access to a toilet; are the children being raised by someone other than a parent; do the children have birth certificates; is someone in the household living with a life-threatening disease; do the children attend school. Once all the households are evaluated, they are rated and the group determines which households should receive support from UNICEF.

Recently, Seoung’s family was selected to receive US$100 for income-generating activities, food and school supplies. She was able to purchase seeds and other items to begin growing morning glory, a common vegetable in Cambodian cooking. She can now sell this at the market. She also purchased chickens. She will eat and sell the eggs for profit, and eventually will be able to sell chickens at the market.

“My life has improved since receiving the money,” Seoung says. “I can now raise chickens and get some income, and I have some food for my family. I can also sell the morning glory.”

Although the small cash grant has made a difference in her family’s life, they still have daily struggles to meet basic needs. They do not have access to clean water. They have no toilet. Seven people live in a very small, basic hut. But they now have the capability to earn a living.

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