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Breaking down barriers

Rama Ariadi / Khmer Times Share:
A volunteer engages a participant in a session to create a solution for her circumstances. Friends International

As the nation continues along its economic trajectory, Cambodia’s image has begun to change. The streets no longer resemble a lunar landscape, and the ever-increasing number of cranes across the capital stand as a testament to the country’s development. However, the unequal distribution of the share of the pie has left a subset of society behind. Cambodia’s disenfranchised poor can be forgiven for feeling the nation’s increasing prosperity is a parallel reality – a line they will never be able to cross.

Today is World Homeless Day. To live without a roof over one’s head, to have to work the streets for sustenance, is arguably no one’s dream for the future. Homelessness could be considered one of the worst real-life manifestations of desperation and disenfranchisement. However, in the absence of an enforceable and/or an effective framework (both from the government as well as non-government organisations) to tackle the root causes, homelessness and poverty affect an increasing number of vulnerable individuals – and many are children.

“These are children and youth who are marginalised from society, and are at real risk as a result. They may be street living and/or working, not in education, unable to find employment, drug using, involved in the worst forms of child labour, in conflict with the law… many risk factors,” said the communications director for Friends International, James Sutherland. “They never exist in isolation, so it is essential to address all the factors, including family and community ones, that may have led them to this situation.”

As simple as it may sound, one must remember that poverty is more than just a state of being – it is also a state of mind. A person who is used to living day by day will find it very hard to think about what’s going to happen next week, let alone next month, when surviving can be an enormous task on its own. This requires a shift in a way of thinking – from both sides of the spectrum.

“Cambodia’s disenfranchised poor cannot be lumped into a single, all-inclusive category as each of their circumstances are unique,” said Sry Chanratha, managing director of Solutions to End Poverty. “The solution to each case is as unique as the problem, and this is why anyone who works in the field has to be really careful – providing aid can lead to a vicious cycle of dependence, which won’t benefit anyone.

“In addition to meeting the immediate needs of our target group, we have to continue to build relationships and trust with our target communities and discuss the possibilities for a better future with
them, and the commitment they will have to make,” concurs Sutherland with Sry.

“We can give them all the information and support they need to make an informed choice, but ultimately it is up to them to join our programmes or not.”

Another problem that the disenfranchised poor face, is their growing reputation as ‘the undesirables’ in rapidly urbanising areas, which in essence, reduces their humanity to their material conditions, to mere nuisances to be removed from the streets at the discretion of the authorities, to be hidden from sight when foreign dignitaries and tourists visit.

“‘Undesirable’ does have some very negative connotations, and it is not helpful to refer to human beings who are facing serious issues in their lives in this way,” said Sutherland. “We need to continue to do our work and break down barriers and negative attitudes to those in society who need support and understanding – not negativity.”

On a brighter note, things seem to be moving in the right direction. Attitudes are slowly changing, and young Cambodians are increasingly becoming more aware of what they can do to alleviate the suffering of the marginalised, as well as the correct approach to breaking the vicious cycle. As an example, Friends International has started an advocacy campaign to stop people giving money to begging youths called ‘ChildSafe Citizen’.

“Without that source of income [from begging], more people will listen to what we propose more readily and hopefully will participate in programmes which will help them become the polar opposite of ‘undesirables’: skilled, educated, and playing a positive role in society,” said Sutherland.

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