Monday, July 8, 2013

Providing vital support to women and children at the local level

Khun Phorn, commune women and children focal point for Ta Sda commune.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2013/Reid

At the start of another busy day, 60 year-old Khun Phorn, women and children focal point for Ta Sda commune in Battambang province, north-western Cambodia, consults her year planner, to review her tasks and jot down a few reminder notes. The year planner is more than a diary. Produced and distributed annually by UNICEF and the Ministry of Interior, it contains invaluable information on civic registration, health, nutrition, water sanitation and hygiene, child protection, emergency preparedness and education.  During her outreach sessions with residents in the commune Phorn uses her year planner to share knowledge on each of these issues and promote the benefits of social services including birth registration and pre-school education.
Phorn has been the women and children focal point on the Ta Sda commune council since she was elected by the commune’s constituents in 2002. Ta Sda commune comprises six villages with 884 households and more than 4,000 residents. With UNICEF-supported training, Phorn is able to influence the commune council to establish community pre-schools and identify other social service priorities in the commune.

Phorn advocates for women and children’s issues and contributes to the decision-making process in the commune council. She uses her position to ensure the voices of women and children in the commune are heard to improve their basic living conditions. She encourages women in the commune to claim their rights to vital social services.

Each year the commune receives a budget allocation from the Royal Government of Cambodia. UNICEF - with funding from the Australia Committee for UNICEF - provides an additional allocation to this budget to address ycritical social service issues affecting children and women in the community. The allocation is known as the ‘social service envelope.’ Phorn works with the commune planning and budgeting committee and clerk to plan, organize and allocate Ta Sda’s ‘social service envelope’ of US$874.00 and monitors the situation of the most vulnerable children and women.

Phorn's dedication and commitment to her job means she often works seven days a week. “I’m responsible for assisting with issues faced by women and children in this commune and I take my role very seriously,” said Phorn with an air of authority. “I enjoy my job immensely and my days are always full and rewarding but different in many ways.”

Health advice

Over the 11 years that Phorn has served as a women and children focal point, she has witnessed a stark improvement in the number of women visiting health centres in the commune.

“Many years ago, women used to deliver their babies at home with a traditional birth attendant, risking their lives and the lives of their babies,” explains Phorn, “Today, the commune has seen no maternal deaths occur in the last year and there’s been a 100 per cent delivery success rate.”

Phorn attributes some of this success to the monthly outreach sessions she conducts in collaboration with village health volunteers in all six villages. During these sessions, which are primarily for pregnant women and mothers of newborns, Phorn encourages them to access maternal health care. She also raises awareness on the importance of vaccinations, ante-natal care visits to the health centre, birth spacing, birth registration, exclusive breast-feeding and complementary feeding. She carries out these sessions twice a day at 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., and on average, 10 to 20 women are in attendance. They also include mothers with young children who learn about nutrition, water and sanitation and hygiene practices. Expectant mothers also benefit from positive feedback from other women who have previously delivered their babies safely at the health centres. These sessions have resulted in a large number of women delivering their babies at local health centres and the local hospital.

“In 2002, people were not aware of birth registrations and only 50 per cent registered the births of their children. Between 2009 and 2011, I organised a campaign on birth registrations at the village level,” recalled Phorn. “Throughout the campaign, I advised parents who had newborn babies, to bring all the required documents to the commune office, and the clerk would issue the birth registrations. In 2011, nearly 100 per cent of births were registered. This commune is the most successful in the district in issuing birth registrations,” said Phorn proudly.

Commune women and children focal point, Khun Phorn, with Morm Sambath and her six-month old baby Ly Sreythi.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2013/Reid
By identifying issues affecting women and children, Phorn is able to take simple, measurable actions to improve the management and delivery of social services in Ta Sda commune. One expectant mother who attended Phorn’s health sessions, was 29- year-old Morm Sambath, from Kon Phnom Tbong village. When Sambath was nine months pregnant with her first child and near her delivery date, she experienced agonising pain.

“I went to the health centre and the midwife referred me to the local hospital five kilometers away as I was hemorrhaging severely,” recounted single parent Sambath. “I stayed at the Sampov Lun Referral Hospital for three days and three nights. I had to pay 80,000 riel [US$20] to the hospital to deliver my baby and another 80,000 riel to rent a car to take me to the hospital.”

Struggling to pay the hospital fees and transportation costs, Sambath remembered that during one of the sessions, Phorn had said that the commune council provided financial support to vulnerable pregnant women. Whilst in hospital, Sambath asked her mother to inform Phorn of her dilemma and request assistance. Thanks to the ‘social service envelope’ made possible with funding from the Australian Committee for UNICEF, Phorn was able to release funds to help Sambath pay her transportation fees.

“I am very happy and thankful for the money,” said Sambath with her six-month old baby girl, Ly Sreythi sitting in her lap. “I appreciate the assistance I received in that difficult situation. The outreach sessions were very useful and Phorn is very kind and supportive. She visited me every week after the delivery and advised me on nutrition, vaccinations, personal hygiene and breastfeeding,” remarked Sambath.

Community safety

Crime remains high in Ta Sda commune, especially in Ta Sda village because it borders Thailand. In this village, drug trafficking, drug use and domestic violence is prevalent. Since 2010, in an attempt to reduce crime in all six villages, Phorn has organised and facilitated monthly community safety meetings at the village level in collaboration with the local police. On average 70 to 80 residents, mainly women, attend these meetings to discuss the types of crimes taking place in the commune. They are encouraged to report crimes that take place and, as focal point for domestic violence, Phorn assists women in writing police reports to be submitted to the commune.

“Since the meetings started, I’ve seen changes in attitudes towards domestic violence,” said Phorn. In five villages, interventions have contributed to reduced levels of abuse. However, since the beginning of the year, domestic violence incidents have increased in Ta Sda village despite Phorn’s efforts.
“Many of these incidents occur when the men are under the influence of alcohol,” explains Phorn. “In some domestic violence cases, we invite the couple to the commune  office to discuss and resolve their problems.”

Access to education

Access to basic education for all, particularly girls and children with disabilities, is a priority for Phorn who encourages parents to enroll their children aged 3 to 5, in one of the three pre-schools in Ta Sda commune.

“I explain to parents the importance of their children attending pre-schools to develop their social skills and prepare them for primary school,” said Phorn. “Every year before school starts, I’m involved and support the school enrolment campaign with school directors and other commune council members. We identify children of preschool age in the villages who are not attending and invite their parents to the school enrolment meetings.” 

In Ou Chamnep village, Phorn is actively liaising with committee members on the establishment of a new preschool. Phorn believes another preschool is needed to accommodate an extra 20 to 30 children not currently in school. Given Phorn’s determination, commitment and experience, she will no doubt achieve her goal of ensuring that all children in Ta Sda commune receive the benefit of an early childhood education.

By Angelique Reid

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