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.

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