For Cambodians with disabilities, the launch of two major initiatives in the past two days designed to improve their lives has brought some optimism about the future—tempered by a note of caution.
At Koh Pich island on Thursday, in front of a crowd of more than 2,000 people, including many with disabilities, Prime Minister Hun Sen unveiled a five-year National Disability Strategic Plan (NDSP) consisting of 10 goals to promote the rights of disabled persons.
These included poverty reduction, the elimination of discrimination, improved access to education, participation in politics and equitable healthcare.
The promulgation of the NDSP was followed by the launch on Friday of a program—funded by the Australian government in conjunction with the U.N.—that will see $13.1 million poured into the disability sector over the next five years.
Claire Van der Vaeren, the U.N.’s resident coordinator in Cambodia, said it was one of the largest disability programs of its kind in the world.
“Within the next five years, the program aims to ensure that persons with disabilities have increased opportunities for participation in social, economic, cultural and political life through effective implementation of the National Disability Strategic Plan,” she said in a speech at the launch event.
According to the U.N.’s website, the program is meant to set in motion efforts that will ultimately lead to the “improved quality of life for persons with disabilities in Cambodia.”
But this is described as an “aspirational goal which will not be fully achieved within the life of the program, given the limited resources available in relation to the scale of the problem.”
The program will focus on four areas: supporting the government’s coordination of the NDSP, strengthening the capacity of disabled people’s organizations, working to improve physical rehabilitation centers and working with provincial and commune officials to promote disability inclusiveness.
Ngin Saorath, executive director of the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organization, praised the increased efforts to address the needs of disabled people, but said unless the government also allocated substantial funding to the cause, its five-year plan was “only a piece of paper.”
He called on the government to commit three to five percent of its annual budget to disability issues.
“For us, [the NDSP] goals are very big and beautiful but what we worry about is how the government, without the budget from the Interior Ministry and based on limited human resources, will properly implement the goals of the strategic plan,” he said.
These new initiatives come as a deadline lapses for all government agencies to have disabled people making up at least 2 percent of their workforce—in line with the 2.06 percent of the total population that the Ministry of Social Affairs counts as disabled.
The July 2015 deadline was set down in a sub-decree that was part of the Disability Law, enacted in July 2009, but Mr. Saorath said that to date, only 1.26 percent of the state’s workforce was disabled.
In his speech launching the NDSP on Thursday, Mr. Hun Sen urged ministries and institutions to adhere to the two percent quota but announced that the Ministry of Education would be exempt, alongside the already exempt Royal Palace Ministry, as disabled persons would find teaching too difficult.
“Among 190,000 civil servants, there are more than 110,000 teachers,” Mr. Hun Sen said, noting that many disabled people cannot stand for long periods of time, and therefore are not fit to teach.
“So if [we] put two percent into the Ministry of Education, it could kill the Ministry of Education. This is a problem we must think [about].”
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