The Elephant in the Room - working with the disabled in Cambodia

Manith Chhoeng is working as an Organisational Development Adviser – Disability NGO with Battambang Disabled People’s Organization (BDPO) as part of AusAID’s Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program. AVID volunteer Communications and Documentary Adviser Felix Hude interviewed Mannith about his work, his life and changing attitudes to disability in Cambodia.

Manith Chhoeng was born in Cambodia in 1952, but fled the country in 1979 after the Vietnamese invasion. He then spent almost three and a half years in a Thai refugee camp, before arriving in Melbourne under an Australian Government sponsored resettlement program.

Over the next few years Manith worked multiple jobs to support himself and his young family, and took on part-time study. “It was tough going there for a while,” he says, but he was eventually awarded a Master of Social Science in International Development degree from RMIT University. Subsequently, after a couple of decades working in Australia, he took up his first assignment through Australian Volunteers International (AVI) in Cambodia in 2009.

It’s now 2013, and Manith is back again, this time working as an Organisational Development Adviser for the Battambang Disabled People’s Organisation (BDPO) in Battambang Province, north western Cambodia. I interviewed him in the foyer of the Golden Gate Hotel, the place where many AVID volunteers stay when they are in the capital, Phnom Penh.

“Simply put, the aim of the BDPO is to get persons with disabilities actively involved in the community, and accepted as self-supporting, bona fide citizens,“ says Manith. “My particular job entails a lot of educational work both within the BDPO itself, and out in the field at commune and village levels. I also work at capacity building within the other existing disability support groups in the province.”

He takes a sip of tea, and smiles. “I get around a lot,” he says.

War victims, landmine victims, deafness, blindness, mental problems, people with birth defects and more recently in Cambodia, road accident victims – the list of disabilities is long in a country struggling to find its way out of an horrific recent past.

“What’s important to realise, though,” says Manith, “is that it’s not just the poor economic situation and lack of workplace skills that impact on disabled people’s lives in Cambodia. The real elephant in the room is the greater society’s negative attitudes towards disability.” In a conservative society such as Cambodia, these attitudes are rooted within the culture and the religion, and as a result, a large part of Manith’s work is to affect a change in ‘perception’.

“The disabled can be shunned, marginalised, kept at home, fenced in by shame, and seen as dirty or untouchable,” he says. “So a large part of my job is to put my shoulder to that elephant, and shift him one inch at a time!” He leans back on the couch and laughs, and you get the sense that under the light-hearted exterior lays a determined operator. Manith looks like a good man to have out in the field.

In 2009 the Cambodian government issued a national law on, as it read, ‘The Protection and the Promotion of The Rights of Persons With Disabilities’. “Look, the law is good,” says Manith, leaning forward to make his point, “but the problem with that here in Cambodia is implementation and enforcement – there isn’t any. And even though most local commune authorities are aware of the law, they are still often reluctant to work with the disability community, or even disability organisations. Again, it gets us back to ‘perception’, and people with disabilities are left out in the cold.”

Recently, Manith has been working with a group of disabled women in Battambang Province. With seed funding in hand, the women had previously set up a water purification plant, and began to sell purified drinking water in the surrounding villages. “And then the social attitudes kicked in,” says Manith. “When the villagers found out that the water came from ‘the disabled’, they stopped buying.”

The women asked the BDPO for help. Over a period of weeks, the organisation helped the women rework their business plan, skilled them up to handle their finances, and are currently in the process of putting a marketing plan in place. Together, they’ve also instigated a broader district promotional campaign. ‘Support your local disabled people!’ and ‘One village, one product!’ are the slogans, painted on cloth banners and displayed throughout the district wherever local people gather. “They are very committed women,” chuckles Manith.

Besides contacting international donor organisations for ‘much-needed funds’, Manith’s job has been to ‘do the legwork’, as he puts it. Over the weeks he’s been travelling the district and talking to local businesses, community organisations, commune chiefs, village elders, and schools. “Social education is the key to it all,” he says, “and I do make a special effort with any presentations I make to the kids. They’re the future, but you have to be patient.”

“Still, we make progress,” he adds, taking another sip of his tea. “The man who now delivers the drinking water for the women was born with a hunchback, and one of his legs is shorter than the other. He drives out to all the villages on a special motorbike, rigged up to a trailer, and it’s working pretty good.”

“You move the elephant one inch at a time!” he says, and grins.

This article was written by AVID volunteer Felix Hude. Felix is currently working as a Communications and Documentary Adviser with the 3S Rivers Protection Network (3SPN).

This is a position of the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program, an Australian Government, AusAID initiative. AusAID is working in partnership with AVI to deliver AVID.

Photo caption:

Manith is coaching a village-based disability self-help group in Battambang Province in financial record keeping. The self-help groups are formed with the intention of being able to collectively work on disability support, advocacy, and the legal avenues available with which to actively highlight the plight of disabled people living in the provinces. Photo: Courtesy Manith Chheong

Reproduced with the permission of Australian Volunteers International

© 2012 Australian Volunteers International

The Australian Government is working in partnership to send Australian volunteers overseas through the Australian Volunteers for International Development program

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