Thursday, August 1, 2013

UNICEF and partners work to keep families together

Phalin (name changed), left, in pink vest, selling fruit at the bus station.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2013/Molika Meas
 KAMPONG CHAM, Cambodia, July 2013 – Phalin*, a humble but smiling 15-year-old, is selling mangos, pineapples and eggs after school at the bus station to earn a modest income to support herself and her great-grandmother.
Phalin is an only child. Her father died during a military mission when she was a newborn. At the age of 5, she became an orphan when she lost her mother to an AIDS-related illness.
“After her parents died I felt so sorry for Phalin. When her mother was found to be infected it was too late. As soon as I heard this information I took Phalin to the hospital to get her blood tested”, said Phalin’s grandmother. “I lost hope when I found out I was infected with HIV. As there is no cure to this disease, I thought I was waiting to die”, recalls Phalin.
At 10, Phalin was referred to the Buddhist Leadership Initiative by the Commune Committee for Women and Children. This UNICEF-supported initiative run by the Ministry of Cult and Religion, has been offering a blend of spiritual and social support, information, knowledge, small amounts of cash and in-kind grants to vulnerable families and children infected or affected by HIV.
The Buddhist Leadership Initiative

With funding from the German and French Committees for UNICEF, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the USAID Displaced Children and Orphans Fund (DCOF), UNICEF is supporting the Buddhist Leadership Initiative in 10 provinces in Cambodia. Combined with the work of 31 Commune Councils for Women and Children and training provided to district social workers from the government’s Department of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, UNICEF is bringing partners  together at the grassroots level to build local child protection networks that benefit children like Phalin.
“When Phalin joined our programme she looked so small, her skin was irritated and she had blisters and small wounds everywhere. Overall her health was poor”, recalls the District Officer of Cult and Religion. “Phalin learned more about the importance of nutrition and hygiene in staying healthy. [Combined with] taking her antiretroviral medication, her health improved gradually. She never misses any of the sessions offered at the pagoda and enjoys spending time with the other children who are now her friends.”

A counselling session at the Pagoda
.©UNICEF Cambodia/2013/Molika Meas

The District Office of Cult and Religion cooperates with the Commune Council and the Commune Committee for Women and Children to identify vulnerable families. They also collaborate with local non-governmental organisations offering supplementary or specialised services.

As a result of this partnership Phalin’s case was referred to the Department of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation and her situation is being regularly monitored by the district social worker. Through such collaboration a local protection network is shaped, making it possible for children such as Phalin to continue living with her grandmother.

Providing alternatives to residential care

In Cambodia, children like Phalin often end up living in residential care - the last stop for children whose families have been devastated by poverty or whose parents have died. Many parents and caregivers, including grandparents, believe their children are better off in residential care, unaware of the risks involved for children in terms of abuse, physical and emotional neglect.

To increase the funds they receive from donors some residential care facilities go as far as exploiting the problems of poverty by actively recruiting children from poor families by convincing, coercing or even paying parents and caregivers to give their children away. Phalin’s grandmother experienced a similar situation. After the death of her daughter, a non-governmental organisation approached her and tried to convince her to place Phalin in residential care. Hesitant about making a decision, she asked for some time to think about placing her granddaughter into such care. When the staff from the non-governmental organisation returned one month later, the grandmother informed them that she wanted to keep Phalin with her.

“Even though I was already old and I had no reliable income, I knew I did not want Phalin to live with other people. I committed myself to do everything possible to take care of her and support her education,” said the grandmother.

The other negative coping strategies which create significant risks to children such as Phalin include unsafe migration, exploitation and even trafficking.

Currently, Phalin is studying at Grade 9 and attends additional English classes. She loves to go to school and tries to study to the best of her ability. Most months she ranks top of her class.

“I save a small amount of the money I’ve earned for my future education, as I would like to go to university and hope to become an accountant”, says Phalin. Looking at her granddaughter proudly, she states, “I am happy my granddaughter could get this support. Although I am already old, I hope Phalin will have a bright future, she deserves it.

*Name changed to protect identity

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