Land-mine victims saved by a sense of purpose

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Children can be so cruel. When Soeung Oy walked around the village playground in south-west Cambodia, her hunchback was a gift to fellow pupils. "Look, The Turtle's scuttling off to eat!" And the adults were scarcely any better. Ms Soeung wanted to be a nurse, and later gained admission to medical college, but the dean dismissed both her and the idea that a disabled person could learn skills.

Children can be so cruel. When Soeung Oy walked around the village playground in south-west Cambodia, her hunchback was a gift to fellow pupils. "Look, The Turtle's scuttling off to eat!" And the adults were scarcely any better. Ms Soeung wanted to be a nurse, and later gained admission to medical college, but the dean dismissed both her and the idea that a disabled person could learn skills.

She was sent to clear bushes from the roadside. Ironically, Ms Soeung's disability saved her from genocide. "She won't last long," said a Khmer Rouge soldier during Pol Pot's reign of terror from 1975 to 1979. "Don't bother with her."

Up to two million Cambodians perished, including Ms Soeung's entire family. After some poor farmers sheltered her, other villagers scorned them for "wasting" their food on someone with bad karma.

For a devoutly Buddhist country, now free of the Khmer Rouge, there appears to be a lot of "bad karma" in Cambodia. The bitter legacy of war, minefields and years without health care is a country with the world's second highest per capita rate of disability, after Angola. One in 250 Cambodians is disabled, 36 per cent of people live below the poverty line, and disabled people are often the poorest of the poor.

When workers for the British charity Action on Disability and Development (Add) reached Ms Soeung's rural district in 1999, among them were amputees and the partly sighted. Yet the appearance of disabled, working people initially left her unmoved. "I don't believe you can do anything," she told them, spurning efforts to establish a self-help group. "Society doesn't want disabled people to have any opportunities."

But at recent celebrations in the capital, Phnom Penh, for the International Day for Disabled People, 42-year-old Ms Soeung led a team of handicapped sportsmen from the Svay Kravan district, where she is now responsible for 400 disabled people in a federation of more than 40 self-help groups set up by Add.

"I don't care if we win or lose," she said. "It's more important to see all these disabled people from different parts of the country gathered here. This is a great time for us."

And it could get better. Ms Soeung will stand for election to her local Commune Council in a ground-breaking poll to be held at across Cambodia in February. Ms Soeung is the director of her local disabled federation, a major Add initiative to help the government tackle disabled issues more effectively, and seeks a seat and voice for disabled people on the Commune's planned development council. According to Phnom Penh's promise to decentralise, these new bodies will command revenue raising and spending powers.

For Srey Vanthon, the Add programme manager in Phnom Penh, Ms Soeung's transformation from village recluse to inspirational activist is ample reward for his team's work. "When we go to a village, we find disabled people look down on themselves, and don't want to talk," Mr Srey says. "Their families and society force them to feel like that and exclude them from mainstream society."

Oum Phen, 27, from the Ang Tanorn village, Kampong Speu province, south-west of the Phnom Penh, is among Cambodia's estimated 40,000 landmine amputees. "People didn't treat me like a human being," he said. "They looked down on me because I couldn't support my own family."

Half the battle for Add workers can be in gaining access to disabled people such as Mr Oum. And then they must convince the village chief of the organisation's good intentions. But when Mr Srey reaches his audience his message is simple: being disabled is not your fault.

Kevan Moll, the Cambodia programme co-ordinator at Add headquarters in Frome, Somerset, said: "Many Cambodians believe people are fated to be disabled – no matter if you trod on a land mine or had no immunisations – because of a sin in your past life or by your parents in this life." He has a disability and visits Cambodia regularly. "It is a very liberating and empowering piece of information to tell someone they are disabled because the polio immunisation campaign broke down in the years of strife."

Add workers also enlist the help of Cambodia's Buddhist monasteries, although they seldom admit disabled boys to train as monks. But some senior monks have started to include "scientific" explanations of disability in their sermons, Mr Moll says.

Som Noy, a polio patient in Prey Toul village, said: "I thought I was the only disabled person in the village. I was very surprised to meet all the others." With help from Add, Mr Som was motivated to join a course to repair black and white televisions. His family doubted much would come of it, but Mr Som now runs a small repair shop. He is training an apprentice, and will take another free course to upgrade his skills, as some families switch to colour televisions.

A little goes a long way in Cambodia. Each donation of £10 enables a disabled person to buy five hens for consumption and sale of eggs; £20 buys a pig; £50 pays for 12 disabled people to receive a three-day training course in leadership; £125 buys a cow and £300 enables a group of disabled people to establish and run their own rice bank. Community support systems such as rice banks and savings schemes offer disabled people the chance to generate independent revenue, and develop sustainable organisations.

But the greatest impact of Add's groups is the growing confidence of participants to challenge and change misperceptions. While Mr Oum's wife plants rice in the subsistence farming cycle that engages 85 per cent of Cambodia's population, Mr Oum trims hair at the salon Add encouraged him to establish. "I think I am a very different person to who I was one and a half years ago," he said. "Before I started my own business I was without hope. Now I am a valued member of our village."



Disability around the world



¿ There are 600 million disabled people in the world

¿ About 82 per cent of disabled people live below the poverty line in developing countries

¿ As many as 98 per cent of disabled children in developing countries are denied formal education

¿ More than 80 per cent of the world's disabled people live in Asia and the Pacific region, but receive just 2 per cent of the resources allocated to disabled people worldwide

¿ World Bank studies contend that "half a billion disabled people are undisputedly amongst the poorest of the poor"

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