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A different world for urban poor

A family cuts fire wood on a railway track
A family cuts fire wood on a railway track afternoon in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district. Pha Lina

A different world for urban poor

Almost 30 per cent of small children raised in poor urban villages around Phnom Penh are experiencing stunted growth, while 35 per cent are underweight – figures significantly higher than citywide averages – a new study says.

Czech NGO People in Need, in collaboration with UNICEF and the Phnom Penh municipality, studied the living conditions of hundreds of families in informal “urban poor settlements”, many of which are not serviced by basic public amenities, including water, sanitation and electricity.

Launched next week, Multiple Indicator Assessment of the Urban Poor, primarily focuses on the health and nutrition of children aged 6 months to almost 5 years, as well as pregnant and lactating women.

Results show higher rates of nutritional and health problems between children in these communities and citywide averages in the government’s 2010 Cambodia Demographic and Health Survey (CDHS).

“The assessment observed higher levels of underweight (35.6%), and stunting (29.1%) in children aged 6-59 months compared to figures from the 2010 CDHS for Phnom Penh (25.1% and 18.5% respectively),” the report says.

Accompanying these issues, less than 60 per cent of children under 2 in these communities are receiving full rounds of vaccination and 16 per cent of pregnant women are at risk of having underweight babies due to being undernourished.

Almost three-quarters of the children surveyed had experienced conditions such as fever, diarrhoea and respiratory problems in the two weeks prior, while about 12 per cent surveyed had no access to sanitation.

Underpinning the problems were levels of poverty far higher than the city average.

“Poverty levels were considerably higher than the official incidence for Phnom Penh (29%, compared to 12.8% using the adjusted absolute poverty rate for Phnom Penh),” the report says.

Of the households that responded, about 69 per cent reported having debt, with about 30 per cent saying they were in the red more than $400.

In one such community in the capital’s Russey Keo district yesterday, young mother Sun Sarith, 28, held her 4-month old baby as she spoke about challenges she faces. “I used to work at a garment factory, but I resigned when I became pregnant,” she said, adding she had not been offered paid maternity leave. “My husband is in construction and makes $100 per month.”

Her baby, she said, had been vaccinated twice. “I don’t know if he needs more and I couldn’t afford it anyway,” she said.

Nearby, Sok Vanna lives in a single-room dwelling with his wife and six children.

Vanna is sick and cannot work at the moment, while his wife can earn about $2.50 per day.

The couple withdrew two of their children from school when they were only in grade 4.

“They needed to help us earn a living and began construction work,” Vanna said.

Ee Sarom, executive director at urban rights NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), said low incomes lead to many problems in fringe communities. “Small incomes cause nutrition problems, and many families share communal toilets,” he said. “We make calls to the government for help, but often officials . . . work for their party, not the nation.”

But City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said his authorities were working with NGOs to help poor communities.

“We send out nurses and doctors to provide vaccine injections,” he said. “We provide food to poor communities, but we don’t have enough to support them.”

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