AS a boy, Van Sopheak hoped to be a doctor. When he was in Grade 9, however, the Kampong Cham province native was attacked in his sleep by an unknown assailant who splashed acid over his face and torso.
The reasons for the attack remain unknown, but its effects were both serious and obvious. Fearful of discrimination from his peers, he stopped going to school and has had trouble finding work ever since.
“I wished to be a good doctor when I graduated, but everything failed. My plan melted away,” he said yesterday. “I started to look for a job after my wounds were treated, but I could not find a good one – only as a construction worker.”
Two weeks ago, Van Sopheak, now 27, became the first acid attack victim to sign up for an agriculture livelihoods programme run by the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity. This week, the charity held a two-day workshop in Kandal province where survivors were invited to join the programme, which is intended to foster skills that might otherwise be difficult to acquire because of the social stigma related to their injuries.
By the end of yesterday’s meeting, which was attended by more than 60 acid survivors from around Cambodia, a total of five new volunteers had decided to join the project, which consists of a 28-by-44-metre garden and a small fish farm, said Pin Domnang, chief of the programme and administration units at CASC.
“The produce that we grow here we will sell to the local market and to our other branch at the Children’s Surgical Centre,” he said, and CASC hopes to raise pigs and chickens in the near future.
Though project volunteers do not receive a salary, he said, all training and materials such as seeds, fertiliser and food are paid for by CASC.
Van Sopheak said working on the farm had made it easier to cope with his injuries. “This work makes me forget what happened to me,” he said.
“It is not a difficult job, so in the future I will make a family farm and then no one will look down on me.”
Yim Sarun, a 35-year-old acid survivor, decided yesterday to join the agriculture programme after hearing about it at the meeting. “I cannot do other jobs, so I am very happy that CASC has created this project for us,” he said.
Ziad Samman, coordinator of CASC, said the public perception of acid attack victims and its attendant social stigma “greatly diminish the employment opportunities for acid survivors in Cambodia”, and that the “visibility of their injuries” can impact their ability to secure jobs.
“In many cases survivors are so afraid that their applications will be denied that they fail to submit it in the first place,” Samman said.
Vocational training and job placement are crucial if survivors are to become “economically independent and confident in managing their own lives”, he said.
Victims’ assistance is one component of a draft law being formulated to curtail acid crimes.
Menh Sothyvann, deputy director of the Internal Security Department at the Ministry of Interior, said at the meeting yesterday that a final draft, once projected to be ready shortly after Khmer New Year, would require more discussion.
“We cannot do these things instantly because we do not have magic powers like Harry Potter,” he said. “We need to take time and do this step by step to ensure it is a good law.”