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
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."
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
"Often, just an hour later, we have more customers."
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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.
are stories about old women killing themselves because they do not get support
from their children. They are humiliated by their children," Vannath
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
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
Although CESO receives $30,000 a year from the Canadian Ratanak
Foundation, Chantha said the NGO has been refused funding by numerous local and
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.
donors and NGOs are more concerned with helping children than older
"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."
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
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
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
"At their age, they should get to stay home and be supported by the
But for Sorn, it is a sacrifice she is proud to make.