Disabled ‘Others’ Ignored by Aid Community

In more ways than one, they are a silent majority.

Crippled or challenged by genetics, poor health, poverty or a mixture of all three, the overwhelming majority of Cambodia’s disabled find themselves doubly handicapped by the fact they haven’t been hurt by war. Even some disabled activists refer to them as “the others.”

Only two out of every 10 disabled Cambodians are the victims of land mines or unexploded ordnance, yet the majority of disabled-oriented services in this country are dedicated to land mine victims.

“The voice of the land mine victim has been heard by the international community. The others seem to be forgotten,” Cambodian Disabled People’s Organization executive director Son Song Hak said. “It’s a pity. It hurts us to be separated.”

While guarding a refugee camp near the Thai border in 1980, Son Song Hak stepped on a mine. The blast took his right leg above the knee and “my belly was torn open.”

But Son Song Hak says his organization is fighting to end the discrepancy in attention, funding and services between land mine victims and other disabled citizens.

“We know we have different kinds of needs and wants, but at the national level, our needs are similar,” Son Song Hak said.

While foreign aid pours into Cambodia for land mine victims, agencies like CDPO struggle for funding. Each year since it began in 1993, the group has set a fund-raising goal of $300,000. It has never made it, Son Song Hak said.

“We are working for all, and we have very limited funds to work at the community level,” he said.

Even large multinational NGOs can appreciate the CDPO’s struggles.

“This is a problem we face ourselves. When most organizations come to Cambodia, they want to focus on land mines,” Handicapped International country representative Issabelle Plumat said.

The gulf between services for land mine victims and other disabled is easily evident.

For instance, Cambodia’s Red Cross produces monthly mine and UXO casualty reports which list the nature of the wounds or deaths and how and where they occurred. It is one of the most sophisticated mine-reporting systems in the world, Unicef official Michel Lepechoux said.

But where non-land mine disabilities are concerned, “we don’t have any accurate data, only scattered information,” Plumat said.

The government estimates Cambodia has more than 169,000 disabled people. Ten percent of them were crippled by war and 11 percent by land mines.

In his speech opening a Disabled Persons International conference in Phnom Penh last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen challenged delegates to help Cambodia’s non-land mine disabled.

Not all activists share the bleak assessment offered by Sok Song Hak.“Now there’s a greater distribution of services,” Disability Action Council project coordinator Philippa Thomas said.

But she also admits land mine victims are more appealing to foreign donors and activists.  “It’s more attractive to find something having to do with land mines. It’s not so sexy to fund someone whose been in a traffic accident,” she said.

Nearly 80 percent of Cambodia’s disabled people live in the countryside, where health services are remote or too expensive, Sok Song Hak said.

Cerebal palsy, a spastic paralysis resulting from brain damage and one of the major disabilities plaguing Cambodia’s children, can be prevented with relatively simple prenatal care, Plumat said.

But prenatal care does not exist for a majority of Cambodian women. A government survey of more than 15,000 women recently found that 55 percent of Cambodian women have not had a health checkup in the last five years. Only 11 percent of women have given birth in a health care center.

Cambodia’s disabled are not just fighting for attention and funding, activists say. They are fighting against ignorance.

“The lack of knowledge is a big problem. They don’t what source a disability comes from,” Plumat said.

Many Cambodians look upon a disability as a form of karma, and often hide disabled children or ignore them.

That is true especially in mental disability cases, which is “the one exception” to Cambodia’s improved services for the disabled, according to Thomas. “The whole idea of someone having a learning disability is something new,” she said.

A case in point is a nine-year-old boy without a name in Svay Rieng province. The boy was born with cerebral palsey and though Thomas says he is “clearly a bright child,” his parents had simply dumped him in a corner and ignored him for his whole life. Because of his tremors and difficulty forming words, the family assumed the boy couldn’t learn.

“They didn’t even bother to name him. They just called him ‘disability,’” Thomas said.

Prejudices and ignorance of mental disabilities is not exclusive to Cambodia, according to Thomas.

“That’s the assumption in most countries,” she said. “I mean, if you see someone without control of their arms and legs, it’s very easy to assume they’ve not got control of their mind as well.”

Many Cambodians don’t send disabled children to school.  Consequently, 57 percent of Cambodia’s disabled people are illiterate, Sok Song Hak said. This is just one more obstacle disabled people face.

“Even the few who complete secondary school cannot reach higher. The needs are immense,” he said.


Related Stories

Latest News