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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Retirement not an option for many elderly

Retirement not an option for many elderly

retirement.jpg
retirement.jpg

Chan Sorn and her coconuts aren't going anywhere. In fact, after 25 years of

hawking coconuts, lotuses, incense sticks and betel leaf outside Phnom Penh's

Royal Palace 58-year-old Sorn has nothing to look forward to but more years of

hard work.

Widow Chan Sorn, 58, makes between 10,000 and 20,000 riels a day selling coconuts on the Tonle Sap riverfront, but almost all of that goes toward school fees for her children.

"I am very tired because I have to sell under the sunlight,"

Sorn told the Post.

"I am old and do not have much strength."

But

for Sorn, and countless other working single mothers in Cambodia, retirement is

not an option.

A widow, she works to support herself and put her four

children through school.

Each morning she rises before dawn to hunt for

the day's bargains. A dozen small coconuts cost her about 5,000 riels. Larger

ones cost more.

Her stall makes between 10,000 and 20,000 riels a day,

depending on the weather. Sorn and her third daughter, Thida, 21, who helps with

the business, pray to Buddha to keep away the rain.

"When we're not

selling very much, I pray that the Buddha will bring more customers," Thida

said.

"Often, just an hour later, we have more customers."

Sorn

spends almost all of her earnings on school fees for her children. Leftover

funds pay for household expenses and medication for her high blood pressure. On

a typical day, Sorn pockets 2,000 riels.

"Although I am poor, I will

struggle to support my children in their studies," Sorn said.

"Our

society needs knowledgeable people and my children need an education to have a

good living in the future."

In Cambodia, many able-bodied older people

must work if they are to survive.

Without a universal pension, and

increasingly without the traditional support of the younger generation, elderly

people have few support networks.

About 50 percent of rural people aged

70 or more were still working at the last census in 1998. The figure was about

30 percent in the cities. In some cases, those too frail to work are forced to

languish on the streets.

At the last census, only 3.5 percent of people

were aged 65 and above. Experts say that the plight of this minority tends to be

overlooked by the government, NGOs and the general public.

In 1998, the

Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor and Veterans Affairs released a collaborative

study with NGO HelpAge International that predicted the number of people over 60

would swell to 6.6 percent in 2020 - an increase of a vulnerable social group

that the country is ill-equipped to manage.

In many Asian cultures, young

people are expected to shoulder the burden of their aging parents' welfare.

Buddhism places a particularly strong emphasis on this responsibility.

"Even before you pay respect to Buddha you have to pay respect to your

parents," said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social

Development.

But poverty keeps many willing children from fulfilling

their duty and the tragedy of recent history has forced many older Khmers to

bury their children, leaving them without support.

Aggravating the

problem is what some experts see as a shift in cultural priorities.

According to Vannath, 62, many young people are able to care for their

parents. They just don't want to.

"Most of the young people are

arrogant," she said. "They feel that they know more than their parents. [They

think] their parents are old-fashioned. They are the generation of the

Internet.''

Too many young people have forgotten the Buddhist way of

respect for their elders, she said.

"With the search for happiness

through materialism we have a tendency to forget all about that."

Vannath

said she knows of young people who have kicked their parents on to the street

simply because they did not want to look after them. For elderly people raised

to revere older generations, the loss of dignity is crippling.

"There

are stories about old women killing themselves because they do not get support

from their children. They are humiliated by their children," Vannath

said.

But the young people interviewed for the Department of Social

Affairs expressed admiration for the wisdom and traditions their grandparents

could impart. In practice, however, skills like krama weaving and basket making

had lost relevance. Young people did not want to learn them because there was no

market for the products.

The report also found that NGO and government

projects tended to exclude older people from their plans, neglecting to take

advantage of their traditional role as decision-makers and

organizers.

Similarly, the few projects aimed at helping older people

must struggle to attract funding.

Keo Chantha, founder of the Cambodian

Elder Support Organization (CESO), believes his NGO and the Thailand-based

HelpAge are the only groups to address issues facing elderly

Khmers.

Although CESO receives $30,000 a year from the Canadian Ratanak

Foundation, Chantha said the NGO has been refused funding by numerous local and

international organizations.

To maintain the Canadians' interest, CESO

spreads itself thin, running sewing and irrigation projects throughout the

country as well as providing specific aid to the elderly. Only one third of its

budget goes directly to elderly people - to feeding and clothing them, providing

blankets, medical treatment, and morning exercise programs.

Chantha said

donors and NGOs are more concerned with helping children than older

people.

"They think it should be left to society to look after the

elderly," he said.

Chantha has appeared on Cambodian TV and radio calling

for the government to provide a retirement pension.

Pensions are not

unheard of. Government employees and veterans receive them, as do some lucky

staff of private companies.

Vannath thinks the call for a universal

pension is unrealistic, but when pressed on the matter, said the government

should "at least provide free meals to the elderly."

She considers

retirement funding for able-bodied people like Sorn unworthy of debate. She

feels that pensions should only be considered for the large number of senior

citizens who are too frail to work.

"The picture that I have is the ones

who cannot work to support themselves," she said.

In Vannath's view,

expecting the current government to take full responsibility for the welfare of

the elderly is unrealistic.

"At the moment to call on the government to

do all of that is like asking for help in the Amazon rainforest [and expecting]

somebody to hear you,'' she said.

She does not see her stance as hard,

just "pragmatic," she says.

After all, many children, neighbors and

relatives have the power to help the elderly people in their lives "right away,

today, now," she says.

Back at the coconut cart, Sorn speaks proudly of

her hardworking son Odom, 18.

A secondary school student, Odom spends his

weekends working as a waiter and learning English.

A daughter attends the

University of Law and Economy, and another is married and has a job as a

cleaner.

Sorn is glad to know her children will have a brighter future

thanks to their mother's lessons about the importance of hard work and

education.

Heng Sokunthy, 21, is a student who buys a coconut from Sorn

every now and then.

"I feel pity for the women selling the coconuts," she

said.

"At their age, they should get to stay home and be supported by the

children."

But for Sorn, it is a sacrifice she is proud to make.

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