Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Two decades of serving vulnerable Cambodian children: Didi’s story

By Darathtey Din

On the occasion of International Women’s Day celebrated every year on 8 March, I spoke with one inspiring Cambodian woman, Ms. Map Somaya, who has dedicated a significant part of her life to serving some of the most vulnerable children in Cambodia. Now in her 60s, Somaya has been working for 20 years with Mith Samlanh, a local organization serving marginalized children and young people, as well as their families and communities.

Ms. Somaya, mostly known by her nickname Didi, is the Programme Director at Mith Samlanh. She exudes an air of charisma, confidence and a burst of positive energy.

Ms. Somaya in her office at Mith Samlanh headquarter 
© UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Darathtey Din

As a child, Ms. Somaya grew up in a supportive, yet conservative family. But she was a curious child who didn’t hesitate to ask challenging questions. “I loved to be free when I was a child and I liked to play whatever I saw other children my age could play.” she said.

Ms. Somaya and her family, like many others in Cambodia, were deeply affected during the brutal era under the Khmer Rouge regime. Ms. Somaya lost her father, her two brothers and her husband due to the conflict. By the end of the war, she was a single mother to one son. At age 20, she was responsible for taking care of her entire family. This left her very exhausted both physically and mentally. But the difficult circumstances didn’t break her or knock her down. Her son and her surviving family members gave her motivation to carry on. She says that her mother was the one person who taught her to work hard and be persistent.  

After the war was over, she returned to her hometown with her remaining family and started working in the information office of Angkor Chey district, Kampot province in 1980. Her role was to disseminate information to former Khmer Rouge soldiers through various events to encourage them to surrender to the Government. From 1981 to 1992, Ms. Somaya worked with the Ministry of Education in Phnom Penh. A job with United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) took her to Belgium in 1992 where she lived and worked for four years after which she returned to her home country to help rebuild Cambodia.

Ms. Somaya’s long career of working for children in Cambodia started in 1997 when she joined NGO Mith Samlanh, first established in 1994 as a Friends-International programme which became an independent NGO in 2002. At that time, she was the only Cambodian volunteer in the then French-run organization. “When I applied for a volunteer position, they asked me why?” said Somaya. “I wasn’t happy to know that there was an organization staffed with only foreigners working to help Cambodian children.”

She knew she would not earn any income working as a volunteer but she wanted to learn and be involved in helping Cambodian children. She started by working with adolescents to help them better understand menstrual hygiene and later on became a full-time staff as an assistant and translator at the same organization.

Ms. Somaya during her speech on International Women’s Day celebration with all the MithSamlanh’s Heroins in March 2014
© Mith Samlanh/Vuthy Sokanha
Later, when Mith Samlanh established an outreach team whose task was to support vulnerable children and youth living on the streets, a team leader was needed.

“As an assistant, I supported the management team in developing the job description for the position. I was asked to keep my eyes out for potential candidates. When I couldn’t find qualified candidates at that time, I put myself up to be considered for the position! But no one believed I could do it. They said I’m a Cambodian, a woman and I’ve spent time abroad. That I wouldn’t be able to stand the nature of work of going from place to place talking to people living in garbage sites or face the heat!”

She was given a one week trial period for the outreach lead position to prove herself to the management.
“I never went back to my original assistant job”, said Ms. Somaya laughing. She served as outreach team leader until 2001. After four years in that position, she was promoted to Director of Mith Samlanh. The promotion and the new responsibilities didn’t come without challenges. “I was to lead an organization of 120 staff. That was quite a lot.”

Mith Samlanh’s programme focuses on three key target groups – children, young people, and their families/communities. The organization supports marginalized children in Phnom Penh including children and youth living on the streets, migrants, drug users, children living with and affected by HIV and AIDS, school drop-outs as well as their families and caretakers of those children. .The NGO helps them access essential services like health care, education, employment, among others. They also have outreach teams whose role is to support vulnerable children and families in communities to prevent unnecessary family separation and ensure that children are receiving services.

The main challenge facing Cambodian children, Ms. Somaya says, is exploitation by adults, and in many cases their own family members. This could be - she says- due to lack of awareness among adults themselves about what constitutes exploitation and abuse.

She added: “you can see one clear example at traffic lights. Let me ask you, which child wouldn’t want to go play when there are events organized by us at Mith Samlanh? All of them want to, but their parents use them to go begging instead because they know that people sympathize with child beggars. So, when this continues, children will form specific behaviours which will be hard to change, and time consuming, later on when we try to help them.”

Ms. Somaya at school materials distribution to over 2000 children reintegrated back to public school system by Mith Samlanh in late 2015
© Mith Samlanh/Vuthy Sokanha

When asked what future she wants to see for Cambodian children, Ms. Somaya said she has a very ambitious hope. She wants children of today to become better and smarter people than her generation. She genuinely hopes that someday, Cambodia will join the list of developed countries. “I could have stayed in Belgium but I decided to come back to Cambodia to help build my country.” She wants the new generation to get involved in social work which she sees as important work for developing a nation. She wants children to have equal rights regardless of who they are and where they are born. She wants to see children go to school and be well taken care of by their parents.

“My journey of working here has been challenging but very inspiring at the same time. It is true that sometimes we come across difficulties in trying to change behaviours, but when we succeed, it’s worth it.” She broke a smile pointing at a pin board next to her desk covered with photos of successful youths supported by Mith Samlanh. “It makes me very happy to see them grow up and be successful. Who would have thought that this little girl we were trying very hard to help is now a restaurant owner? Stories like this keep me going.”

Ms. Somaya also had a message to all Cambodian girls and young women. “I want to see young Cambodian women stand up for themselves and be brave. They should take chances and do not be afraid to try.”


*Mith Samlanh is a partner organization of UNICEF in the area of child protection, as part of the Partnership Programme for the Protection of Children, also known as 3PC. The programme works to help strengthen the country’s efforts to prevent and respond to child protection concerns.

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