By Chansereypich Seng and Daniel Calderbank
Seventy years ago, UNICEF was founded to meet the desperate needs of children whose lives had been torn apart by World War II.
We started working in Cambodia in 1952 and established our first country office in 1973 at the height of the country’s civil war but had to cease operations in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge seized power.
After the fall of this regime in 1979, we returned to provide emergency assistance and address critical health, sanitation and aid distribution challenges.
Today, UNICEF Cambodia has a wider focus on the realization of children’s rights through cooperation with the government, NGOs, communities and development partners.
To celebrate our global 70th anniversary, we have compiled inspirational stories that focus on Cambodians who have been assisted by UNICEF to overcome personal hardship and become role models for others.
One such person is Santepheap Heng. During his childhood, Santepheap received educational support from UNICEF in Cambodia during very difficult times and this inspired him to enter the development sector.Born during the regime of the Khmer Rouge in 1975, Santepheap grew up in the post-conflict years which saw a nation rebuilding itself after years of turmoil.
During the four year reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979, Cambodia’s education system collapsed and Santepheap was among the first recipients of education services when they were reinstated in the early 1980s.
At the age of six, he joined other children at a UNICEF-facilitated primary school in a remote village in Kampong Thom province.
He said: “There was nothing much I knew about UNICEF besides its logo. I first saw it during first or second grade.”
This early intervention involved providing teachers and basic school materials such as pens, pencils, erasers and a small board to write on.
Santepheap said a simple piece of chalk was an item that reminded him the most about UNICEF’s early years in Cambodia.
He said: “I used to make a chalk from clay by myself and sometimes purchased it from locals but it was bad quality.
“However, UNICEF’s chalk was so special. I usually broke it into small pieces and shared it with other children.”
He said UNICEF influenced his life in a positive way through instilling a sense of motivation and drive to better oneself.
Santepheap (left) is pictured at the age of 13 with his grade eight classmates in 1988.
Photo provided by Santepheap Heng
“Because there was an incentive that students who got high scores in class could get additional learning items, I always maintained my study to be among the top five,” he said.
“I shared rewards with my friends and I maintained my school performance until I completed university.”
Santepheap’s academic success led him back to an association with UNICEF – as a specialist on the WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) programme.
He has now been employed with UNICEF Cambodia for 10 years, but remembers his early attempts to secure a position with the organization.
“I applied two times before getting in,” he said.
“I did not give up because my childhood experiences strongly encouraged me to maintain my dream of working with UNICEF.”
With a smile, he said this was his greatest aspiration in life.
“I am so happy with my current work to support the most vulnerable women and children.”
With such an in-depth knowledge of the daily challenges facing the disadvantaged, Santepheap is in a strong position to help them.
The organization has identified the north eastern region of the country as an area that requires specific attention to address a disparity in education, health, WASH and community services.
“This is due to geographical location, a lack of infrastructure, the low level of education and [the] local economy,” he said.
Santepheap is pictured with children at a community pre-school in Ochum District in Ratanakiri province.
Santepheap said his hope is to see all children living happy and fulfilled lives so they can reach their full potential.
He said: “I’d love to see all children in the world living in a protective and safe environment. This might be difficult to realize, but I still hope that one day we can change the world.”
Santepheap now has a bigger ambition to work in development on a wider scale.
“In the future, if our country is better developed, [our] children are better prospered and I am given a chance, I would love to work in other countries to help children around the world,” he added.