Tuesday, November 24, 2015

5 questions: urban poor communities in Cambodia

By Martina Tomassini

Shacks above a pool of water and garbage in Andong urban poor community, Phnom Penh
© UNICEF Cambodia/2013/Phok Sophea

Rapid population growth in Cambodia’s capital is putting Phnom Penh under considerable pressure. Given its lack of adequate social services, social security and physical infrastructure, the city does not have capacity to cope with the current high influx of immigrants from rural areas it is experiencing. This results in ever-growing urban poor communities, where people live on the outskirts of society and face many challenges, including lack of basic sanitation and hygiene, as well as social services. I spoke with Alexandra Hammer, Project Advisor at UNICEF Cambodia, who has been working closely with these communities. 

Q 1: What do we mean by “urban poor communities”?

A: Typically urban poor communities, commonly known as “slums”, are informal settlements of at least 30 households. They have no or insufficient services and amenities such as access to clean water, sanitation, rubbish collection, toilets, electricity and roads. There is a series of criteria that a settlement needs to meet to qualify as an urban poor community, including the following: “a community with non-formal, non-permanent and low income employment opportunities.” In other words, a settlement whose inhabitants work as factory workers, construction workers, motorcycle taxi drivers, street vendors, rubbish collectors, domestic servants etc. The Phnom Penh Urban Poor Assessment – conducted in 2012 by Phnom Penh Municipality with technical support from UNICEF – states that around sixty per cent of urban poor households live on $0.50 per person per day, or less.

Q 2:  What’s the situation of the urban poor in Cambodia?

A: There are two type of urban poor communities: regularized and non-regularized. The latter have a great disadvantage since the people living there lack official residence and land rights, and the authorities do not support investments in permanent structures. The Phnom Penh Municipality has identified 516 urban poor communities in the capital, of which 174 are non-regularized. Outside of Phnom Penh, there are also urban poor communities in other cities including Siem Reap, Battambang, Sihanoukville and Kampong Cham.

The majority of urban poor residents are migrants who move from rural areas to the city for better employment prospects or are people who have been relocated from their current settlement, often due to land development. A “typical migrant” would be a woman aged 15 to 29 living in a small wooden house with between three and six other people. Many houses consist of just one room. Most urban poor communities are located next to sewers, roads, railway lines or rivers. These areas are often prone to flooding.

A small informal shop in Andong urban poor community, Phnom Penh
© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Fani LLaurado

Q 3:  What are the biggest challenges facing the urban poor?

A: Lack of income and access to basic social services, unemployment and social exclusion. The urban poor are also exposed to hazards resulting from unsustainable land use and climate change such as flooding, pollution and environmental degradation.

Access to education is a challenge for urban poor children. Many children who migrate to urban poor communities do so without proper documents for school transfer, which disrupts their education. There is limited knowledge about the benefits of early childhood education and a lack of access to preschools. Consequently, only 43 per cent of families send their children to preschool compared to the national average of 61 per cent.

Urban poor residents are vulnerable to violence, exploitation and abuse. During the Phnom Penh Urban Poor Assessment, domestic violence was reported in 43 per cent of urban poor communities. Children and adolescents growing up in urban poor settings are especially vulnerable to violence, exploitation, substance abuse and sexually transmitted diseases. Their communities contain many physical hazards – open sewers, uncollected rubbish and open defecation mean that even the simple task of walking to school can be very dangerous.

The average income of urban poor households is very low and the majority of residents live below the poverty line. As a result many families are forced to borrow money to pay for medical care, buy food or start a small business. A shocking 83 per cent of urban poor households are in debt.

Q 4: How has the situation changed over the last 10-20 years?

A: During the past two decades Phnom Penh has experienced a huge increase in population. Between 1998 and 2008 alone the population of the capital doubled, mostly due to the migration of Cambodians from the countryside to the city. The population of the city is now over 1.5 million. In 1998, one in every 20 Cambodians lived in the capital compared to one in 10 in 2012. This massive increase in population puts pressure on the city, which does not have the capacity to deal with such a high influx of migrants and lacks social services and physical infrastructure. This forces many people to the fringes of society, living in informal urban poor settlements. These communities now account for about a quarter of all the Phnom Penh’s residents, according to government sources.

Q 5: What action is being taken by the government and by UNICEF and its development partners to help improve the life of people living in urban poor communities?

A: The urban poor poverty reduction working group – which includes UNICEF, relevant Government ministries and development partners – focuses on the needs of urban poor communities and meets regularly to monitor the progress of work to support these communities. The group, formed in 2014, is also developing a minimum package of interventions for urban poor communities. This package includes child and youth protection, education, health, water & sanitation (WASH), nutrition, livelihoods and economic development interventions.

Severe and Acute Malnutrition screening in Meattakpheap urban poor community, Phnom Penh.   © UNICEF Cambodia/2014/Pharin Khiev

Since 2011, UNICEF has been supporting the Municipal Health Department to strengthen health services in 26 urban poor communities. This has included providing training to health staff and village health support group members, strengthening the quality of newborn and child health services and delivering outreach services in urban poor communities. UNICEF is also supporting a campaign to promote child survival and health by encouraging caregivers to immediately bring children with danger signs of pneumonia, and newborn babies with danger signs of illnesses, to the nearest public health facility to receive life-saving treatment.

UNICEF is promoting nutrition in 160 urban poor communities by screening for malnutrition, providing micronutrient supplements, demonstrating how to feed young children nutritious food and providing treatment for children suffering from acute malnutrition.

Find out more
To read 14-year-old Thim's story of life growing up in an urban poor community, click here.

To see a powerful photo story with images and stories from Phnom Penh's urban poor communities, click here.

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