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
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
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