What Absolute Poverty Looks Like

Nath is an example of a woman living in absolute poverty in Banan District, Battambang Province, Cambodia. I met her after our team of VSO ICS volunteers conducted poverty surveys in the community where we lived, and she told us about her lifestyle. We thought that it was important to share her story so that other people could understand her situation.

Environment

This year there was a really bad storm in the area. Nath and her family had to shelter under some banana trees because they were scared that the house would fall on top of them. When the storm was over, their house was destroyed. Luckily, Nath’s brother was working away and has let them move into his house for now, which is comprised of one main room and several small storage rooms outside made from bamboo, palm leaves and thatch. However when he returns Nath and her family will have to move out and will have no-where to stay.

Nath and her husband have three children: a son (18 years) and two daughters (10 and 15 years). Having had bowel disease two years ago and breast cancer this year, Nath is too ill to work. Her husband has heart disease and is likewise too ill to do manual labour. Operations and health care are very expensive in Cambodia, even with a Poor ID card (which gives them a discount to health services) and Nath and her husband struggle to make ends meet. They have to forage in the nearby fields for food, and often go hungry. Nath’s daily challenge is asking to borrow money from her neighbours and family to in order to get by. The banks and microfinance companies won’t lend her money because of her situation, so she has to ask her family to borrow it for her under their name.

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Nath’s brother’s house and storage room

Support

Nath’s oldest son works at the popular tourist sight Phnom Sampov as a tour guide every evening after his studies in Battambang, contributing the family’s only income. Since English is so poorly taught in rural schools (see more information about education in Cambodia here) he picks it up from tourists he meets and tries to improve his language skills that way. He wishes to stay in his home town and look after his younger sisters – a rare ambition for youth in Cambodia, who often aspire to study and work abroad. Since buying school equipment is expensive, he was unable to afford it during some years of study and fell behind his peers in his level of education. This is often a struggle with poor children and teenagers in Cambodia, particularly girls, whose education is seen as less important than that of boys.

Four years ago, the village chief told the family about Anatta World Health and Education Outreach, a non-government organisation which supports children in developing countries. Anatta used to give Nath’s family a donation of rice every two months but have recently started a new scheme. When I asked Nath how important she felt education is for her children, she told me that Anatta had given her the option of a monthly cash donation, or to support one child’s education (e.g. buying books, stationary and school uniforms). She said she chose for them to support her eldest daughter in her education, because it is more important than money. Nath hopes that one day her daughters will go to University, get a good job, and be able to support their family with a better chance for their own futures.

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Plans for the Future

When Nath and her husband recover a little from their illnesses, they plan to improve their circumstances by going to work in Thailand. She will have to borrow money from her neighbours in order to pay for the travel. Nath cannot afford a passport or visa so she will have to travel and work illegally, by any means possible, with no guarantee that she will even find a job when she gets there or that she will be paid for any work that she does. There are far more risks working illegally, including being abused or not paid by employers, being imprisoned by the Thai government, and being victim of human trafficking. Her biggest fear is being found and sent to jail. She knows of people who have gone to Thailand to work – some have come back with money, some haven’t.

Nath can see no other option. The support given by NGOs such as Anatta may provide a vast amount of help – and hope – but unfortunately does not solve her problem. With no money to invest, no livelihood training available, and no means or knowledge of how to get a lawfully paid job, what other route can Nath take? This is the reality of people living in absolute poverty in Cambodia.

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Good luck to Nath and her family and we are hoping that they will be on the road to success soon!

Check out my blog about health in Cambodia and another NGO which works in Banan District, Cambodia.

Soriya’s Story: Battling Diabetes in Cambodia

Kov Soriya is one of the 2.3% of Cambodians who suffer from diabetes. Diabetes is a silent killer, since in the majority of Cambodians it remains undiagnosed, and is particularly high despite most sufferers being lean (not overweight) when compared to other countries. Soriya shared with me her experiences of having diabetes in a country with limited healthcare and knowledge about health and diseases.

Is diabetes a big issue in Cambodia?

I don’t know how widespread diabetes is in Cambodia, but my doctor told me that the rate of people diagnosed with diabetes rose by 50% between 2000 and 2006. This is mainly because a while ago people were tentative to go to health clinics, and didn’t think about their health that much, but now more people are conscious about their health and check up on it more, and have more faith in hospitals.

The main problem is that people who have diabetes have to travel to Phnom Penh [the capital] to see diabetics specialists: in the provinces they have no access to doctors or insulin.

The Cambodian diet is quite high in sugar, for instance in cooking and popular drinks, which leads to a higher risk of diabetes. How informed do you think people are about the disease?

There is very little understanding and knowledge about diabetes in Cambodia. People just know that it is extremely bad for them: they always say that diabetes is the “rich man’s disease” because, due to the system of healthcare being very difficult to access, it is extremely expensive to treat.

The first time I saw the doctor, the nurse was asking me very crazy questions like “are you married”, “do you have children” which in Cambodian culture it is not appropriate, so I was annoyed and said no I don’t. She then told me that I shouldn’t expect to have any children or a husband in the future now that I have diabetes. And this is the attitude of most people in Cambodia: they think that when you are diagnosed with diabetes, that there is nothing more for you to live for.

Luckily I talked to my doctor, and he explained to me about how to manage my diet and my medicine, and after following his advice I felt a little hope for my future.

What was your thought process when you discovered that you had diabetes?

For two months I cried and avoided people, because when the people I knew found out I had diabetes they told me that my life had finished, and started to ignore me. I thought that I would lose everything in my life, and that everything I had worked towards had fallen apart. I lost weight. Twice I almost killed myself because I thought that there was nothing to live for anymore.

What was your biggest fear at that point?

My biggest fear was about the expense. I had just graduated from university, I didn’t have a job and I came from a very poor and remote area. There was no means to pay for my healthcare, and because of this, I worried that I would not have a long life.

How did your family react?

My family were very supportive during this time. My dad said, “daughter you don’t have to think about that. My life is for you and I will give you everything until I have nothing more, and I will not let you go. If I let you go then I will have to go first”. And he hugged me and reassured me. His words really touched my heart and he and my mother gave me the motivation to battle diabetes.

What were the challenges you had to overcome since having diabetes?

Before I worked for VSO, I worked in the jungle in a conservation organisation. Because there were no fridges or ice available in the rural areas, storing insulin in the right conditions was extremely difficult, and I had to throw a lot of my insulin away because of this. My health got worse as I couldn’t take my medicine, and had little time to rest and no control over my diet. Eventually, I had to resign from my favourite job, so I could move somewhere where I would have better access to healthcare.

Have you met people with the same disease?

Yes I have. My friend’s parents have diabetes and she told me where I can access the doctor and medicine. My friend who lives in Australia also has a 5 year old son who has diabetes, and she sent me some information about how to monitor my diet, but because of the free treatment in Australia he is quite a bit luckier than me and it is not such a bad problem.

If you had the chance to talk to someone who discovered they had diabetes, what would you tell them?

I would tell them to follow the doctor’s advice, which has given me such a good result on my health. Monitor your food and cook your own meals. Also, find out which type of diabetes you have: type one or two, because your medicine with depend on this – but don’t rely on the tablets or insulin, you’ve got to watch your diet and exercise too. If you do it properly, you could have better health than a non-diabetic person!

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Kov Soriya fresh from her interview

Soriya’s story highlights how important it is for people to understand about health. Misinformation can not only lead to poor physical health, but also can have serious consequences for your mental health too. Raising awareness of diabetes in Cambodia and elsewhere can improve the lives of people after being diagnosed with the disease, and can prevent people from getting it in the first place.

To understand more about diabetes you can look on the NHS website or the Cambodian Diabetes Association for symptoms, prevention advice, and treatments available.

Misa’s Story: Starting a Business in Rural Cambodia

Keo Misa is a charismatic 27 year old woman who has grown up in rural Banan and set up a professional shoe making business in her home town, Phnom Sampov, with her family. After meeting her in a cafe, she invited us to her house to see her shop and to have a chat about how she achieved success at such a young age.

 

The Road to Success

From childhood, right up until high school, Misa would help her mother prepare and sell soy milk at the market everyday in between her studies. It was essential for Misa to help her mother to generate income for the family: usually in Cambodia it is the head of the household, i.e. the father, who is mainly responsible for earning money. However due to various unfortunate circumstances, including neglect from Misa’s father, it was left to her, her mother Keo Kim, and her sister Tach Sarey, to support the family and each other.

Misa has mastered the English language despite limitations within the education system in rural areas of Cambodia, including Banan. She studied everyday for three hours at Phnom Sampov High School in order to get into her desired University course: Business Administration at Pannasastra University, from which she graduated in 2007. She continued her English studies throughout, and after, her degree. Misa recounted that her happiest memory was when she got a job at the University shortly after volunteering for the position. She continued to work there for another four years after graduating in various roles, before resining to begin her business.

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Some of the shoe designs in progress

The Tools of the Trade

It was Sarey, Misa’s sister who inspired the project when she returned from Thailand, having worked at a shoe factory there. They combined their knowledge of shoe making and business strategies to kick-start their business plan. They hired a professional trainer to show them how to make fashionable styles of shoe, including cowboy boots, despite his expensive commission costs, and imported the material from Thailand, which has superior quality compared to the material from Cambodia or Vietnam. 

Any business suffers from teething pains, however, and Misa’s was no exception. The accumulative cost of material, training, setting up the shop and hiring staff was very expensive, and loans from the bank have limits. For instance it might take 10’000 USD to take your business off the ground, but you might only be able to borrow $3’000 from the bank at a time. Luckily for Misa and her family, her mother Kim already had a successful side-business in alternative medicine. Using the money from that, as well as donations from Kim’s customers, they were able to generate enough income to launch the business.

The family also encountered other obstacles, such as fierce competition from other companies, and staff accepting bribes from customers in order to have quicker service, which Misa resolved by overseaing the transactions of the business.

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Misa outside her shop

Misa’s Advice for Aspiring Business Men and Women

Don’t copy from others – make your own decisions and form your own brand
Do what is good for other people – don’t make money at the expense of others, for instance giving your customers a low quality product for a high price
• Be honest and consider others when you’re competing with other rival businesses
Be honest with the people you work with – admit mistakes, and tell your co-workers if they have made a mistake too
If you want to do something, do it! Take the risk!
You can find Misa’s Shoe Shop, which opened in December 2015, on the road behind the Phnom Sampov Health Centre in Banan District, Battambang Province. Her mother’s alternative medicine business is also open every Wednesday and Thursday to customers. They are extremely hospitable people and welcome interested tourists and customers alike.

Congratulations Misa and good luck for the future!

Bi Pan’s Story During the Khmer Rouge’s Regime

The Khmer Rouge was a name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kapuchea which formed in 1968, led by Pol Pot. They came into power in 1975, and in an attempt for agricultural reform caused famine and disease throughout the country, as well as committing genocide and torture to their own people.

The regime of the Khmer Rouge is still very present in the minds of the Cambodian people, and the country is still recovering from the horrific events that happened during that time. Despite this, the very recent history of the Khmer Rouge is not very well known in Europe and Western countries, and is not taught in depth in Cambodian schools. This creates a generation gap between the older people, who have experienced it first-hand, and the Cambodian youth, who are not informed and often embarrassed to ask questions about it. Therefore it is very important to share the realities of people during this time, to promote understanding and openness between both diferent generations and different nationalities.

During my stay in Cambodia, I am living with two women who have lived through the reign of Pol Pot: Bi Pan and her sister Bi Pawm. Me and my fellow volunteer Soramony Suong interviewed Bi Pan about her experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime.

How did your life change when Pol Pot came into power?
During my childhood, I lived in a big house in Banan with my parents and sister, Pawm. We were a family of farmers. In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took over, there was not enough food or medicine for the people of our village. My parents fell ill and died, and I was moved to a different commune in Banan to work. I was 20 years old.

What did you and your family think of the Khmer Rouge at first?
I was very sad, and we were all very worried about ourselves and what would happen to our village. We knew the Khmer Rouge would have certain expectations for us, and that if we couldn’t fulfil their requirements we would be killed. There was a prison in Battambang city where the Khmer Rouge took people to be executed.

What happened to your family when the Khmer Rouge sent their soldiers into your village?
There was not much of a problem for our village, just no contact with my relatives and no medicine to give to people who were sick. You had to exchange gold for medicine; gold was cheap and medicine was very expensive so this was very difficult. However, my sister-in-law was killed by the Khmer Rouge because her husband was from Vietnam. First they took her husband away, and then they came back and took her away too.

What kind of work did you have to do for the Khmer Rouge?
Lots of different work: carrying soil, harvesting rice, planting seeds, every kind of farming job. Men and women of all ages did a variety of jobs and children had different jobs, not involving heavy lifting. They divided the work up equally between people: there might be one hectare of land to farm per 20 people. I was also sent to work on Gom Bing Boy, the dam in Banan, which was being made to store water for farmers to use in times of drought.

What were the working conditions like?
We worked from 4am – 10pm without rest. In the morning, the soldiers would wake up the workers with a microphone. There was only porridge to eat with very little rice and lots of water: there was so little food, I didn’t have a period! We weren’t allowed to have salt, but occasionally I would ask for some so that I could have a period, and was very grateful when someone gave it to me. I didn’t want to marry or have children during that time, because there was not enough food or money to support a family.

If the workers complained about the labour, said they wanted to stop or work somewhere else, they would be taken to “training”, which meant they would be taken to be killed.

Were you split up from your sister during this time?

Yes, even though we both worked on Gom Bing Boy we were put into separate communes. I worked on the dam for one year, and my sister worked on it for two. The Khmer Rouge kept families apart, especially women, because they thought it would be more productive for labour to keep relatives separate. We had to carry soil high up to the very top of the dam. My sister’s hearing was impaired from the intense labour during this time. There was very little time to rest.

What happened when the Vietnamese soldiers came to free the Cambodian people?
I went back to my house in Banan. When I got home, I just lay on my hammock and closed my eyes. I didn’t even take a shower – I didn’t want to reflect on the experiences I had had. It makes me very sad to imagine what happened in that time, because it was so horrible. Now I just want to forget about it and live my life.

Translated by Soramony Suong