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Life in the Land of Widows

Life in the Land of Widows

Forty-three year-old Him Hun has watched her life slowly crumble around her since

her husband died in 1989 after he was press-ganging into forest clearing duties along

the western border. She now lives on the roof of Phnom Penh building with her four

children, aged eight to 21, and ekes out a living selling fruit through the day.

"Things have just gone from worse to worse. I used to send my son to school

in the hope that one day he could become a government official but now I can hardly

even afford to feed my family, how can afford school fees?" asked Hun who makes

3,000 to 4,000 riel a day.

Hun's plight is shared by hundreds of thousands of Cambodian women. The two decades

of warfare that ravaged Cambodia also left the country with a warped demographic

profile. According to U.N. estimates, women comprise 60 percent of the population

over the age of 25. Thirty to 35 percent of all households are headed by women, 40

percent of which are widows.

"When we ask the women why they are working like men in the factories or as

porters, beggars, or plastic collectors, they always say the same thing: 'It is because

I have no husband," said Serey Phal, vice president of the Phnom Penh Women's

Association.

"You now see many women working through sickness or pregnancy because they have

no choice, they need to eat," she said.

Widows and abandoned wives have become a common sight in Phnom Penh and the provinces,

living on the streets, in public areas, around railway stations and deserted buildings.

The situation is also hard on the children who are forced to work as plastic collectors

or beggars to help their mothers and denied the chance of a proper education. Cases

of mothers selling their children into prostitution have also become more common,

social workers say.

The situation of widows was further hurt by the State of Cambodia's 1989 decision

to abandon its collective farm policies, which had provided a form of community support

for single mothers.

The economic liberalization of the late 1980s allowed people access to bank loans

but unless they had a house, land or other assets of value they were refused credit.

"How are the poor supposed to have these things. I know that other countries

have banking for the poor, but here we have only banking for the rich," Phal

complained.

As a result of this predicament, many NGOs began to establish credit services in

addition to providing health care, and education programs for women.

"There are a lot of poor women who are very short of food, clothing, clean water

and medicine who need our help," said Tapati Dus, manager of Worldvision's WID

program. The project focuses on providing women with credit and encouraging them

to start up their own small business, such as fish, vegetable and noodle vending

or growing agricultural products. The project allows poor women to borrow amounts

ranging from 10,000 to 50,000 riels at an interest rate of three percent, which is

much less than the rates offered by loan sharks who charge 25 to 30 percent per month.

Tapati said that the poor are very uncomfortable, facing many problems in loosing

business and they will cry if they have to borrow from others.

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