The darker side of life in Cambodia

These posters can be found all over Siem Reap

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and I’ve been approached three times so far by the so-called ‘baby milk mothers’.  They are usually around the busiest part of town in the evening with a baby strapped to them.  They approach and say ‘I don’t want money – just some milk for the baby.’  They persuade you to go to the supermarket to buy expensive powdered milk, and after you’ve left, feeling that you’ve nobly helped a mother and baby, she returns the milk to the shop and she and the shopkeeper share the money between them.  The babies are often drugged to keep them quiet, and local ex-pats believe that the women are being controlled by a mafia-style gang, who drop them off every evening to roam the streets.  The women don’t always have the same baby with them, giving rise to the suspicion that they rent the babies, and have to bring in enough money in an evening to pay the rental charge and to make a profit.

There’s a group of Australian students in the hotel at the moment who are studying sexual trafficking in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, including the ‘virginity price’.  Cambodian men believe that sex with a virgin will bring them good health and a woman’s virginity price is anywhere between $600 and $1,500.  Often the young women don’t want to do it, but their parents tell them to, and parents in Cambodia must always be obeyed.

The girls who sell their virginity often find that it’s not just a one-off transaction, and they find themselves working in the sex trade in the many bars and clubs in town.  Similarly, girls are sold into prostitution by their parents because they simply can’t afford to keep them.

Cambodia’s also well-known as a destination for child sex-offenders, and these tend to be foreigners, not Cambodians.  The British organisation that I came through insists on a police check for all their volunteers, but it would seem that not all organisations are so rigorous.

I went to the landmine museum yesterday, and learnt the story of the man who started it.  He was a child soldier with the Khmer Rouge, then defected to the Vietnamese army and laid thousands of mines throughout his military career.  Once the war was over, he made it his mission to clear as many mines as possible and to set up a home for children orphaned by land mines or maimed by them.

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Land mines were laid over a period of twenty years by the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese, and it is estimated that there could still be 5 million in the ground.  The number of people injured by land mines is decreasing every year, but Cambodia has the highest number of amputees per capita of any country in the world, and the presence of landmines prevents people from working the land, increasing poverty and hunger.

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Some of the museum finds are displayed in cabinets with explanations, while others have been made into more artistic installations.

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The Cambodian attitude to disability is that it is the result of bad karma, and something to turn your back on.  Grace House has the only disability unit in the province and the children there had often been locked up by their families before, and hidden away – and one child was found abandoned by the motorway.  These children are safe and cared-for at school, but I know that the staff worry about what will happen to them when they become adults.

The Big Luck Project trains disabled people to enable them to earn their own living, they have a series of workshops and a shop to sell the finished products.

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This blind man works in the textiles workshop, with disabled women on the machines.

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This man makes wooden statues.

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This is a student painter who is learning by copying other artists’ work.

Western run and/or financed organisations can help to some extent, but the Cambodian attitude towards disability needs to change before significant progress can be made.

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