Proleung Khmer

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Hope rises from squalor

PHNOM PENH - A foul, muddy track - with garbage piled up high on either side - is the only access to the Phnom Penh Thmei squatter community, built on a swamp on the fringe of the Cambodian capital.

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  • Asia Times
    January 25, 2005
    Hope rises from squalor in Cambodia
    By Sonny Inbaraj
    (Inter Press Service)

    PHNOM PENH - A foul, muddy track - with garbage piled up high on either side - is the only access to the Phnom Penh Thmei squatter community, built on a swamp on the fringe of the Cambodian capital.

    Money is scarce in this community of 42 families. Unemployment is rife among the men, many of whom seem quite content getting drunk and gambling away their meager savings.

    Life in shantytowns and informal settlements on public land, where a
    quarter of Phnom Penh's 1 million residents live, is insecure. Evictions can happen as developers move in. Health services are often not easy to access either.

    But some residents of this community are out to prove that living in slums does not always have to be miserable.

    Fed up with the hand-to-mouth existence they and their children live because of their men's behavior, a group of women here, with funding from a local non-governmental organization (NGO), have banded together to get out of poverty.

    One of them is Neak Samrath, 45, who runs a small revolving credit fund. "This revolving credit fund is by women for women in this community. No, the men can't borrow any money. No way," she says emphatically. "We imposed the restriction on men because that's the only way the women here will have control over the money they borrow to set up their own business," she
    points out. "Also this ensures that the money borrowed is repaid."

    Most of the loans made to women in the Thmei community are for the setting up of small sewing shops that make hammocks from scrap cloth, obtained from a nearby garment factory.

    "The loans are made at an interest rate of 1% per month and are expected to be paid back within 60 days,'' says Samrath.

    More than 15 women have benefited from the revolving credit fund that was started with seed money from Urban Poor Women Development (UPWD), a local NGO working with slum women and children. The smallest loan is 50,000 riels (US$12.50), while the ceiling is 200,000 riels ($50). The amount lent out is based on sales.

    "The amount borrowed can be twice that of the woman's sales. That's the criteria used, because if we lend out too much they might have difficulty paying back," Samrath points out.

    Asked if anyone had defaulted on their loans, Samrath gives an assuring no. "We haven't had anyone run away with the loan money. I think the women are proud that this money belongs to the community and feel lucky that they can borrow it to better their livelihoods," Samrath says.

    "Perhaps this success story can be related to the big shots coming to the World Social Forum in that faraway land [Porto Alegre, Brazil]," she quips.

    One of the aims of the World Social Forum (WSF) is to give a voice to the world's poor and excluded sectors, and hear of their success stories.
    Scheduled to begin on Wednesday and run through to next Monday, the WSF is an annual gathering of civil society representatives, held as a counterpoint to the World Economic Forum, which brings together the world's political and business elite in the Swiss resort town of Davos every year.

    In addition to the money UPWD has provided the revolving credit fund, the NGO has also helped set up a network of traditional women healers in the slum community to look into the health needs of women and children.

    Om Sareth, 42, one traditional healer in the network of three in Thmei, says many women feel comfortable coming to them because they do not charge anything, and also because they are women themselves.

    "We understand their bodies and that's important in traditional healing. Once they have the psychological confidence, healing starts," says Sareth.

    Most of the cases they see are sexually-transmitted diseases, she explains. "Gonorrhea and genital herpes are so common and these women are getting it from their men who have no qualms sleeping with prostitutes."

    Adds the traditional healer: "We can treat gonorrhea and herpes using herbs and traditional medicine. But when it comes to HIV/AIDS - which we can
    recognize - we refer them to the hospital."

    There are five women with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) living in the community, but Nawarn (not her real name), who is involved in
    counseling women on AIDS, says there could be more because many women, on knowing they have the disease, tend to hide it.

    "I often advise them to go for voluntary testing," says Nawarn, herself HIV-positive. "'Go for the sake of your children,' I say. I tell them, 'Even if you test positive, there are drugs that will make you lead a
    normal life'."

    Nawarn, together with the traditional healers, are working with UPWD to install awareness of HIV/AIDS among the men in the community and institute behavioral change.

    "The men here have to realize that they need to be responsible in their sexual behavior. If they keep to their old habits, soon there'll be no women left here and it'll be a community of orphans," she says. According to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, some 170,000 Cambodians were estimated to be living with HIV in 2003.

    But in addition to all these challenges, the communities' very existence is insecure; tenure on other people's or state land is beyond their control.

    On public land, many family settlements are alongside relatively wide streets, railway tracks, riversides, and boengs or water reservoirs used to irrigate farm land during dry season. On private lands, small clusters of families have settled in disaffected alleys of better-off districts, while other groups live as squatters in dilapidated, multiple-occupancy buildings in the center of the city where owners wait to sell the building for commercial development.

    Rural migrants have also settled on non-constructible public land on the rural fringe of the city, where they expect that long-term occupation may provide them some tenure rights.

    "It's disheartening to see squatter communities being forced to move out after they have just begun to be self-reliant and women there feel empowered," says Noch Chamroen, a program manager with UPWD. "When they don't move out, force often is used," he adds.

    The activist pointed to a mysterious fire in a shantytown here in March 2002, which left more than 1,000 people homeless. Recalled Chamroen, "Almost immediately after the squatter settlement was burnt to the ground, a building with office space went up."[End]

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