Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Critical Care Nurse's Journey to Cambodia

Dana Wright from Amherst, New York traveled to Cambodia with Americans for UNFPA in January of 2006. This is her story:

I have retired from hospital critical care nursing and have turned my focus to the health and education needs of women and girls worldwide. So when the invitation to travel to Cambodia came across my desk from Americans for UNFPA and the Foundation for Global Leadership I jumped at the chance to see for myself the plight of women there.

Cambodia is still recovering from the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, which killed some 4 million people from 1975 to 1979. Especially hard hit during that time were the professionals in all disciplines in the educated, literate class, sending the country back 100 years in my opinion. Now the country struggles to come into the 21st Century and needs help from the international community. UNFPA, and other UN agencies, give financial support and provide technical expertise to government agencies and the many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on the ground.

2007 Cambodia DelegationI was part of a small delegation of supporters of Americans for UNFPA traveling to Cambodia to learn more about UNFPA's programs to provide women's health care - including family planning and HIV prevention - and promote gender equality by improving education for girls, increasing their enrollment and decreasing their drop out rates.

Dana Wright traveled to Cambodia and shares her story. Now you can make a difference by donating to Americans for UNFPA. Your support funds critical programs for women, including family planning and HIV prevention.

UNFPA has been working in Cambodia for 12 years and despite continued progress, the country continues to face many challenges in poverty, health and education. For nine days we visited various UNFPA-funded NGOs doing heroic work in the slums, meeting the needs of people who lack both education and work skills. We visited projects that offer general education, vocational skills and health services to commercial sex workers and street children.

We visited a clinic, open to all, which offers HIV/AIDS testing and counseling where trained young people teach safe sexual practices to their peers to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. When we arrived, the teens were even having a dance lesson.

The Secretary of State for Health, Professor Huot Eng, told us of the difficulty of meeting so many health needs - especially the high rate of maternal and infant mortality during childbirth - with limited resources. Maternal mortality is estimated at 437 per 100,000 lives births (compared to eight in the United States). Deliveries typically happen at home with traditional birth attendants and hospitals are shunned by most people as unfriendly. We asked Professor Huot what he considered his most pressing priority and he told us trained OB/GYN nurses.

Professor Huot told us he was grateful for partnership with UNFPA, especially in gathering accurate census data that all branches of the government can use. (How can you evaluate your maternal health programs if you don't know how many women you have or how many die in childbirth?) The 1998 census was the first for Cambodia in three decades.

Eighty percent of the population (14 million) live in the rural areas with no electricity, paved roads, sewage treatment or running water. Access to trained nurses is limited. Since most girls drop out after primary school a pre-nursing student is scarce, indeed. The expense of tuition as well as board at a school in a city is beyond the means of most rural girls. Low pay and exposure to blood (HIV) also makes long-term commitment to nursing a problem in Cambodia.

An hour drive from the majestic temples of Angkor along a bumpy, dirt road is a tiny farming village where UNFPA funds a program where whole families come to dance and play a reproductive health quiz show. The teens answered questions about HIV/AIDS without embarrassment as their parents and grandparents looked on. UNFPA's Cambodia Goodwill Ambassador, Dr. Chea Samnang - an actor and singer, came along to this party with us and held the teens spellbound with a pep talk about being safe and staying in school.

Before our trip ended, we watched the sunset from the top of Angkor Wat and prayed for a more peaceful and progressive future for this beautiful country and its people.

If you are interested in traveling with Americans for UNFPA, please send us an e-mail at

Rwanda and Uganda from a Donor's Perspective

Jim Cowan from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania joined a trip organized by Americans for UNFPA to Rwanda and Uganda last summer to meet the people involved in UNFPA programs. This is his story:

On this trip to Uganda and Rwanda we visited health facilities supported by UNFPA and listened to women talking about their lives. They spoke with an intimacy, honesty and openness that ordinary tourists would never get to see, and they told us things that ordinary tourists would never get to hear.

The women that I talked with were living in cultures where large families are expected, and access to all forms of health care, including reproductive health care, is limited. They told their stories in a simple, direct fashion, and on more than one occasion I found it hard to even listen, let alone talk later about what I'd heard. Even now it's hard to write it down.

I met sex workers who sold themselves nightly for "50 cents with a condom, $2 without," a woman who was taken aside by the Rwandan interahamwe during the genocide of 1994, thrown on the ground with one leg tied to one tree and the other leg to another tree, raped repeatedly and left for dead, a women who was thrown out of her home by her husband when she confronted him about keeping his positive HIV status a secret and who had no choice but to turn to prostitution to support herself and her three children.

I also met strong, charismatic, educated women working effectively to change traditional views on family size, on the education of women, on female circumcision, and to make health knowledge and health care available to even the poorest people. Meeting these often poor and often uneducated women in rural health centers, in the offices of their women's associations, at a widow's agricultural association, and in hospitals and orphanages, also showed me their determination to make their lives better. Even more humbling was their desire to improve the lives of others they could touch.

It was very clear that modest but consistent funding transformed these women's lives. They went from a feeling that theirs was a waste of life and waste of the human spirit, into a life where there was some hope. The source of the hope was very practical: immunizations, prenatal care, childbirth services, family planning services, nutrition counseling, adult education - women who could read using their spare time to teach women who had never gone to school. The hope held by all these women was that they could be healthy, could earn a living, could plan their families, and most important of all, they could hope to be in control of their own lives.

I was reminded of Loren Eiseley's story, "The Star Thrower." Eiseley is walking on a beach after a storm where thousands of starfish are stranded on the beach, dying. Eiseley walks along, picking up starfish after starfish, throwing them one by one back into the sea. A man asks him what he's doing and what difference it makes, pointing to the starfish in Eiseley's hand. Eiseley throws the starfish back into the waves so it can live, and says, "It makes a difference to that one."

The biggest problem in Africa is the grinding poverty I saw almost everywhere. It's too large a problem for any one person to solve, and too large for all of us to solve in the very near future. But on this trip I learned that there are unlimited opportunities to help people and that there are countless people who desperately want to be helped.

Americans for UNFPA is truly helping some of the poorest, most defenseless women in the world. That help always makes a difference. Help always makes a difference to someone.

If you are interested in traveling with Americans for UNFPA, contact us at