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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Keeping it in the family

Keeping it in the family

Reflections on December's international days for HIV/AIDS, disabled persons, anti-corruption

and human rights.

Disaster struck for one family this week. The father climbed up the coconut tree

as nimbly as he had done for decades, but this time he fell to his death. Only learners,

I am told, use a safety strap around the trunk. After injuries from landmines and

traffic accidents, falling from trees is one of the main causes of disability in

Cambodia, and it is one that is preventable if rudimentary safety gear is used. Surely

his death need not be in vain, we should try to alert others to the danger, and persuade

them that "real men can use safety aids" after all? The answer, it seems,

is "No", and the reason is the same one given whenever misfortune falls

on families. "We must keep this quiet; we must keep it in the family!"

One of my earliest experiences in Cambodia was with a colleague struggling to come

to terms with his brother who was dying of AIDS, a scene I was all too familiar with

from my years in Africa. The family nursed him through his final days but they did

it alone. They did it with inadequate knowledge of medication that could ease his

suffering and without making full use of what little professional help there was

at that time. Too many families do the same today. I asked him why and was told "We

must keep this quiet; we must keep it in the family!"

Family members contracting HIV/AIDS are but one of the many problems facing people

in Cambodia. Poverty is probably the most persistent. Every effort to work a way

out of poverty, or to take a shortcut, such as selling daughters for ready cash,

seems thwarted by the constant percolating up of wealth instead of what should be

its trickling down as the economy grows. That is the effect of daily corruption,

paying of unofficial charges and commissions for just about everything, not just

education or health-care. When the mother and baby died in Prey Veng because the

doctor did not get his $200 on time for the life-saving caesarean operation, what

did the family say? "We must keep this quiet; we must keep it in the family!"

One genuine hope for many poor and oppressed people in Cambodia comes from the civil

society NGOs. They do much to improve lives and livelihoods. This will continue until

public services can be developed to cater for their needs and there are sufficient

better-off people willing and able to pay fair official charges and taxes. The operative

word should be "civil", but a succession of NGOs or people within NGOs

have been uncivil, putting personal gain before the interests of the people their

organisations exist to serve, bringing disrepute on the sector as a whole. Yet even

when the warning signs emerge and threats of closure and job loss are real, what

do you hear? "We must keep this quiet; we must keep it in the family!"

Keeping problems in the family is seen as "the right thing to do." It governs

behaviour, and there is much more to it than a simple "out of sight, out of

mind" dismissal. It is accompanied by senses of shame, powerlessness, and resignation

that misfortune is due to fate. It also means problems are understated.

Nowhere is it more apparent than in families living with disability, and more so

with disabled women and girls. They believe they have the double misfortune of being

born female as well as being disabled. They ask "Why me?" The faithful

wife contracting HIV from her unfaithful husband, or a victim of domestic violence

asks "Why me?" The elder daughter making the sacrifice for her family on

the slippery slope from waitress to beer-girl, then karaoke singer and finally sex

worker asks "Why me?" The motodop driver once a proud NGO worker asks "Why

me?" And no doubt the widow of the man who fell from the coconut tree is asking

"Why me?" But keeping things in the family means their question is never

answered.

In the still of the night, after the death of the coconut tree climber, one dog started

to howl, beginning an entire canine cacophony. "There you are," I was told.

"The dog is announcing the spirit of the dead man." Maybe it is true! Maybe

the spirit is saying, "Do not keep it in the family." Only by facing up

to facts, learning lessons and sharing them broadly will there be answers to "Why

me?" And only then will the numbers of people posing the same question begin

to fall.

International days are intended to focus minds on worldwide problems that translate

into personal and family tragedies everywhere. They are meant to be more than an

opportunity to show sympathy. They should stimulate firm commitments and specific

actions from all to prevent more tragedies. Next year's celebrations should not be

exact replicas of the ones before. Each should show real progress year by year, real

change for the better, and fewer "Why me?"s. Will they? Will we know? Or

will too many tragedies continue to happen because they must be kept quiet?

Name withheld on request

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