BATTAMBANG, Cambodia, July 2013 – Kunthea*, a friendly 9-year-old, spent close to two years of her life in residential care together with her older sister Raksa*, now 13. Kunthea was only 6 at the time, her sister was 10. Looking back on the experience she recalls, “I missed my mother, my brothers, my friends and my home so much. I cannot express the sadness I felt, but it hurt and I found it difficult to breathe. I felt home sick and cried a lot, especially at night. I sometimes had nightmares because of it”.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2012/Soyorn Choun
Kunthea* (name changed) on the left with her mother
Kunthea’s father left her mother before she was born. Left alone with five children, Kunthea’s mother, Mrs. Ratha*, struggled to earn an income sufficient to feed her family and provide an education for her children. Falling into debt, she saw no option but to take her sons out of school to help support the family.
“When I heard about the possibility to work in Thailand, my sons and I planned to go and work there,” Kunthea’s mother explains. Hearing from a neighbour about a residential care centre run by a non-governmental organisation in the area, she decided to leave her two daughters in their care.
It took Kunthea’s mother and her sons nearly two years to pay back all their family debts. During this period, Kunthea’s mother met her new husband with whom she had another daughter. Debt free, the family decided to return home and be reunited with their daughters.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2012/Soyorn Choun
Kunthea (right) and
her older sister Raksa, in front of their home
The Department of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (DoSVY), the non-governmental organization Komar Rikreay and the local authorities, all worked together to facilitate the reintegration process for this family. Home visits were organised in the first month to allow the girls and the rest of the family to get to know each other better. Upon reintegration, DoSVY, as well as Komar Rikreay, continued to provide follow-up support, including monitoring and counselling, until the case was successfully closed.
These reintegration and coordination efforts were made possible with UNICEF support and funding from the German and French Committees for UNICEF, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the USAID Displaced Children and Orphans Fund (DCOF). The collaboration has resulted in better coordination among the local authorities and organizations involved and strengthened the case management. UNICEF also provided technical and financial support to DoSVY to strengthen the quality of their work in the area of alternative care for children and to align this work with the Minimum Standards on Alternative Care and the corresponding guidelines for inspection.
Contrary to popular belief, children in residential care in Cambodia are often not orphans. Poverty is usually cited as the main reason for parents placing their children in residential care. Currently, 47 per cent of children in residential care have been placed there primarily due to poverty. Limited access to social safety nets and community support services for vulnerable families can result in unnecessary family separation.
Many parents believe they have no other option than to put their child in residential care if they cannot afford to provide adequate food, shelter or education. They believe their child to be better off in such care; unaware of the risks involved and with little knowledge of alternatives. Many do not understand that even in the best resourced residential care facilities, issues arise for children through forms of collective care and through separation from their families and primary carers.
“I almost could not believe it when my sister and I were told we could return home and live with my family again. It was my only dream when I was living at the centre”, said Kunthea. Now studying at Grade 4, Kunthea hopes to become a nurse. She still misses her friends and caregivers at the centre from time to time and hopes to visit them some day. “Just a visit though, not to stay there like before”, Kunthea said with a smile.
*Names changed to protect identities.