Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Growing up without a childhood

Leang Hour (right), her grandmother and her brother sit in front of their house.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2014/Peter Farmer

Out of all the stories we photographed while visiting UNICEF Cambodia, this is the one that hit me the hardest: The story of twelve year old Leang Hour who has become the motherly figure to her younger brother Srei Huy after their mother passed away a year ago and their father left the family. We met them during a day photographing activities supported by the Commune Committee for Women and Children (CCWC), a committee of the local government Commune Council that provides support to vulnerable pregnant women and children.
The two children live in a small village called Chamka Lhong. The road to the village is no longer paved, potholes and wash boarding rocked the four-wheel drive and eventually we got out the car and walked. We crossed a small clear stream and climbed a hill. On the outskirts of the village, on the edge of a slope was a small shelter. We stood out front, waiting for the children we were to meet. A small crowd started to grow around us. In fact, it felt like the whole village was out to see what was happening and who we were.

Eventually, we met Khu Phorn from the Commune Committee for Women and Children who introduced us to Leang Hour and her little brother. He was sick and at times struggled to breathe. We sat down on a small raised, wooden platform and began talking to the brother and sister, trying to get to know them. I asked what Leang does for fun. Her reply: “I don’t have time for fun. I cook. I clean. I look after my brother.” Leang doesn’t go to school. Out of all her brothers and sisters, only one goes to school. Leang needs to stay at home to look after her younger brother. He held onto her the entire time we were there.
While we were chatting, a moto [motorbike] pulled up beside us. An elderly woman stepped off the back and sat down beside the children. It was their 62 year old grandmother Chan Thon who takes care of Leang, Srei Huy and their three siblings after they lost their parents. Every day Chan Thon makes her way to the markets to sell fruit and vegetables. On a typical day she earns roughly US$1.25, and that’s to feed six people.

I could see the desperation in her eyes. My heart sank a little more. We asked Khu Phorn what the CCWC is doing for this family. She told us that it was only recently that this family was brought to the attention of the Commune, and so support had not quite started coming in. With UNICEF-support, Commune funds would soon provide them with canned food appropriate for long-term storage and with small financial aid to help with medical costs and transport. The village too would provide food and money to the family during the most difficult times.

I was happy that, at least, this family was given a fighting chance. But to see children having to grow up so fast, to take on the role of providing and running the household and living with the loss of their mother and father made this story difficult for me to write about. I can only hope that as more awareness is raised, and that more support is provided, more and more children and families can have access to the food, water, medical facilities and education that they so desperately need.

By Peter Farmer

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