Despite strong government commitment to ensuring rights of disabled citizens, in reality life remains difficult for many who are forced to scrape a living on the fringes of society
Photo by: TRACEY SHELTON
A land mine victim carves a wooden Apsara at the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organization at Wat Than, Phnom Penh.
NGIN Saorath presides over a staff two-dozen strong in his Phnom Penh office, but his memories of years of poverty, social isolation and public humiliation as a result of his disability have not faded.
Now the director of a local NGO, the Cambodian Disabled People's Organization (CDPO), the 34-year-old has himself been unable to walk since he was a child.
"I had polio during the Pol Pot years," he explained. "I was treated with local medicine by a traditional doctor. But he was killed and after three years without treatment, I became disabled."
Throughout most of the 1990s, Ngin Saroth was one of the hundreds of thousands of disabled Cambodians whose condition prevented them from finding employment.
"After I graduated from high school in 1990, I applied for jobs as a lawyer and teacher, but was rejected because of my disability," he said. "I was shocked when looking through job announcements to see some requiring a full body. I am disabled but my brain is not."
But in 1997, he was given a low-level position with the Cambodian Disabled People's Organisation, and after working his way up the ranks, he became its director in 2005 - the same year he was married.
The timing, he says, was no coincidence, as his professional success helped him prove a respectable husband and reliable provider. His family now also includes two children.
While he says his fortunes would be difficult to replicate for the nearly 550,000 disabled people across the country, he believes legislation to offer them greater support from the state is essential to protect one of the country's most vulnerable groups.
Say no to marginalisation
"Because of the lack of attention paid to disabled people, it is easy for them to fall into crime, become drug addicts and beggars. We are far more vulnerable," Ngin Saorath said.
His organization provides a network for nearly 20,000 disabled persons to help them assert their rights, participate in society and combat the social stigmas Cambodian society places on them.
Buddhist precepts do not make life easier for disabled Cambodians. Those afflicted often face tremendous guilt, as their condition can be associated with sins from a past life.
Even Ngin Saorath says he "used to wonder if this all came about because I had committed a bad deed".
For Theary Seng, president of the Center for Social Development, "the stigma violates a basic human right by blaming people for what they cannot control".
Since they face discrimination at schools, disabled people tend to have far lower levels of education compared with the general population and rely heavily on food and training assistance from foreign aid groups, Ngin Saorath said.
He said that even today the government and civil society have made little to no effort to accommodate disabled people in education, the workplace or health services.
"We need job opportunities. We don't want to be (temporarily) pleased with a gift and then left jobless the rest of our lives," he added.
"Disabled people can be leaders, civil servants, cleaners, receptionists and many other kinds of workers. If we are provided equal opportunity, we can participate in the country's economic and social development. The voice of disabled people should be integrated into society."
Searching for US support
In 2007, the government signed a UN convention in Washington pledging to protect the rights of disabled people but has not yet passed a domestic bill that is in draft form.
In 1999, following pressure from domestic and international NGOs, the government drafted the Law on the Rights of People with Disabilities. It has since sat in draft form in various government offices for nearly a decade.
According to the draft law, the purpose of the legislation is to "strengthen and protect the rights and interests of people with disabilities, and to... guarantee their full and equal participation in all activities in society".
In concrete terms, the law would sanction a minimum number of jobs in the private and public sector for applicants with physical and mental disabilities".
While Ngin Saorath thinks the proposed domestic law is not up to the standard of the UN convention in its depth, he said it is an "acceptable" start.
The law is scheduled to be addressed by the National Assembly, and the Labour Ministry has promised to push for its adoption within the year.
While Cheam Yeap, a senior lawmaker from the ruling Cambodian People's Party and head of the National Assembly committee that reviews all new proposed legislation, said he had not yet seen a copy of the law, he insisted he would support passing the bill.
"When it is adopted by the National Assembly, this law can help protect the interests of disabled people and help improve their quality of life," he said.
The government acknowledges that decades of civil conflict have left the Kingdom with a higher-than-average ratio of disability. While this has allowed the Kingdom to shine in some areas - for example, the Cambodian disabled volleyball team is ranked No 3 in the world - it puts a significant burden on the state to ensure disabled Cambodians receive the same entitlements as able-bodied citizens.
The government maintains it is up for the task. At the UN's 16th annual International Day of Disabled People earlier this month, government officials insisted the country would not turn its back on afflicted Cambodians.
"We have never forgotten disabled people," Ith Sam Heng, minister of social affairs, said, adding that the CPP-led government had renewed its commitment to promoting the rights of disabled people in Cambodian society.
Ith Sam Heng said that years of war had left almost two percent of Cambodian people disabled. But even after a decade of peace, the percentage of the population afflicted by a disability was still rising, he added.
LIVING WITH POLIO IN CAMBODIA: CHHUN SOPHEAP’S STORY
Born with polio – a disease that is often rampant in post-conflict societies but can easily be prevented with immunisation programs – 37-year-old Chhun Sopheap lost the use of both his legs as a child. He has scraped together a living over the years by selling books to tourists in front of the Royal Palace and the National Museum. He used to sell books near Phnom Penh’s Central Market but was forced to leave, he said, because security
guards there harassed him. Holding down regular
employment is impossible because of his condition, he said, adding that
he had got used to social exclusion as a way of life. “It’s easy for me
to be disappointed with myself. Security guards and police are always pushing me away and insulting me. It’s hurtful, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said.