Monday, May 14, 2007

Please don't forget

We emerge from the bumpy unpaved roads of the countryside to the shockingly modern hotel strip in Siem Reap, developed only because the Western and Japanese tourists have come to see the splendid temples of Angkor Wat. A new hotel goes up once a month here. It is easy to understand why most outsiders have forgotten there is a larger plight in Cambodia; it would be hard to imagine the poverty and the lack of development if Siem Reap was all one saw of the country.
Here too we visit the programs of NGOs, NGOs doing the work that the government has forgotten. We are bearing witness, we have come to hear that the Cambodia government spends 50% of its budget on the military, and only 2% of that budget on health care. And here we were, as Americans, doing the work that our U.S. government has forgotten or neglected to do. We, as Americans, could help reduce the number of deaths in Cambodia, but for 5 years the U.S. government has put a halt to this by withholding funds to UNFPA. With U.S. help, Cambodian women will surly have a better chance of living. The U.S. is the only country to withhold funds to UNFPA for reasons that are political and not financial. Where has our concern for humanity gone?
We bear witness to Cambodia, and to the work that UNFPA is funding here. To the programs that allow the chance for hope, health, and a better life. Let us remember.
As I return to the U.S what can I do know? I promise not to forget. And I hope that the words and experiences I've shared will encourage each of you to call your Senators and Representatives and urge them to support UNFPA, we can help more women live to see their children. Everyday Americans for UNFPA works to help us see our role in promoting the health of women worldwide. Join them in their efforts.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Driving Reflections

We drive. Flat fields with palm trees popped up like feather dusters. Everything is brown and dusty now in the dry season, layers of sand coating the palm trees like chocolate, as though the entire country is an attic waiting to be dusted off from misuse. We visit a rural hospital where the prisoners from the local jail who come for treatment are restrained to their beds, where a patient with HIV lies forgotten outside.
There is hope here, in the form of the monks with their saffron umbrellas and turmeric robes. The monks preach of HIV prevention in terms of good karma, in a way that speaks to the Buddhist religion of the Cambodian people. The monks tell us they are willing to talk about condom use, about reproductive health.
It is not enough of course. Inequality and domestic violence still exists, and in the shelter nearby, women are rocking their babies in hammocks in this place to which they have escaped. "Whenever we argued, my husband threatened to cut our baby in half so we could each have a piece of him," she explains. The chubby baby sleeps unawares of its impending doom, at peace now because his mother had this shelter to run to. It's my hope that this is an extreme story, but the message and call for help remains prominent.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Friends, Smiles, Hope

We dine at the Friends Restaurant, an organization where those who have been forgotten and abandoned on the street are remembered again. Friends reaches 1,000 street children a day, and has made extraordinary gains in the ten years since its founding. We watch the children giggling as they are given schooling, watch the adolescents who are learning practical life skills such as cooking and mechanics, alongside health classes and talks on gender. They smile at our cameras so genuinely.
As do the poorest of the poor when we visit them in their slums, greeting us with smiles and hope. We enter the slum along a rickety platform that runs between two buildings, and are instantly met by the heaps of garbage and the putrid stench rising from between the ramshackle wooden huts. But there are smiles on the faces. They cluster around peer educators – also funded by UNFPA – here as well, and laugh at the games and the lessons. These people have not forgotten to love life, and we should not forget that they have the right to long life, and good health.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Is there a women's movement?

We visit a maternal hospital, strikingly modern by Cambodian standards, built not by their own government but by the Japanese. There are low wooden ceilings and wooden benches, where the expectant mothers watch instructional videos and pop Thai TV while they wait their turn. It is 5000 rial for the first visit, the equivalent of about $4.25 US currency, and it is a prohibitive sum for many.
Four hundred and fifty out of every 100,000 women in Cambodia die in childbirth; a rate 10 times higher than the U.S. We learn that UNFPA has significantly reduced the rate of maternal mortality in 8 countries, but in Cambodia much help is still needed.
At the Ministry of Women's Affairs that afternoon, they tell us that 52% of Cambodia's 13 million citizens are women, but that they are much poorer than their male counterparts. Although women make up 74% of the labor force, they are also far more often in low-paying jobs. It is a theme reflected in the highest echelons as well. At the Ministry of Women's Affairs, 700 of the 850 employees are women. That percentage is far smaller in other government bureaus. The Ministry receives only 5% of the government's budget, with the highest portions going to agriculture, industry, telecommunications etc. So has the government, too, forgotten?
Gender mainstreaming is a priority right now, they tell as at the Ministry, and legal rights, but the biggest obstacle they face is the limited resources they receive. There are lofty goals to change social norms, to alter the fact that most decision-making now lies with men. It is a part of the national strategy to say that women are the backbone of economic development and stability, they tell us. I listen for what they don't say, for the stories of sex trafficking and inadequate access to skilled birth attendants and gender inequality. "Is there a women's movement in the country?" a delegate asks pointedly. Not really, they admit.
"How much money would you need to cover your work in all the provinces?" another delegate pries. $30,000 a year would fund all their work in eight provinces they suggest.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Peer Educators at the Khmer Youth Association

The community groups have not forgotten. Up we climb, up a flight of stairs as steep as those from a ship's ladder, to a room with a whirring fan. The Khmer Youth Association is one of many programs in the country funded by UNFPA. It sends peer educators to target communities where they teach open communication between parents, youths, and teachers around the topics of reproductive health, HIV prevention, and gender equality. Some parents remain reluctant and do not allow their children to join these groups. But the hindrances to KYA's work have solutions. The more open the dialogue that continues, the more parents will be willing to allow such peer education to go on. Likewise with the remote locations of the provinces. The KYA can only reach target communities in certain seasons, because rain at other times of the year makes access impossible. If the infrastructure of the country were improved, so too would the health and safety of its citizens. If we don't forget.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Early Reflections - Cambodia, A Forgotten Country?

"Cambodia feels a forgotten country," remarked one of the Americans for UNFPA delegates on our first day in Phnom Penh. It was not hard to understand her comment. I had arrived the night before, and on the drive from the airport we passed shacks set up on sidewalks, fruit juice stands, and clusters of people eating out of bowls at plastic tables and chairs. Scooters whipped in hair-raising speed between larger vans and cars, which were few and far between. There were no high rise buildings. The sticky sweet smell in the air was at odds with the well-kept hotel in front of which the van finally stopped. There was a gecko lizard waiting on the ceiling of my room. Cambodia is overwhelming to every one of the five senses; a stench rolls off the river, the eyes have to constantly scan for the scooters zipping next to one's shoulder. The sun and the humidity seep into skin, the voices at waist high call out offers of books and sunglasses in a non-stop chatter, children walk by with one mangled limb, adults who end at the waist roll along in wheelchairs. "Need a ride, need a ride?" calls a rickshaw driver with every pace.
Yet for all the bustle, Phnom Penh did feel forgotten. There were hardly any tourists. Except for delegates like us there to observe and others from hospitals, NGOs, health agencies, who had come to deliver services that were not provided by anyone else in the country. It felt forgotten also because most Americans forget – or never know – that people face such grave health struggles. It is easy to become caught up in the consumerism of our high-speed culture. It made it feel doubly important, then, that our group of fourteen had come to bear witness to it all. To the ill, peddling to help; to the implements of torture in the Pol Pot era prison; to the hollowed out trenches in the ground marking the mass graves at the Killing Fields. This was not ancient history – all of our delegates and tour guides were alive when these atrocities happened a mere thirty years ago. They have not forgotten. Nor has UNFPA. UNFPA was established in Cambodia in 1994, and through its various programs, aims to provide support to the government so it can incorporate issues of population development, reproductive health, maternal health and more into its agenda. One of the keys, of course, would be eradication of poverty, an omnipresent shadow as one walks the overcrowded sidewalks and slums. The eradication of poverty is intimately connected to the health and rights of women.