Sovann and Sambath* (not their real names) just back from the new school-year opening ceremony,
riding the bicycle and wearing the uniforms received from the Commune Council.
©UNICEF Cambodia/ 2016/ Hun Sovadhanak
Siem Reap Province, Cambodia, November, 2016: It’s a hot and humid day in Yeang village as 11-year-old Sovann* bikes home from school down a dusty lane. In a white shirt and dark pants, the Grade 3 student looks like the average Cambodian schoolchild. But tragedy struck Sovann and his younger brother, Sambath’s*, life in 2014. During a domestic dispute, their mother was killed by their father. With the father now in jail, the boys’ grandparents have stepped in to care for the children.
Sovann was born in Yeang, a village about 45 kilometers from the provincial capital of Siem Reap, in 2005. Sambath arrived in 2009. Soon after the younger boy’s birth, their parents, farmers who struggled to support their family with a small plot of land, crossed the border to Thailand in search of better paying jobs. They worked in construction, under difficult conditions, taking the two boys with them. This is a choice many Cambodians make, in the hopes of more money and a more secure future.
Though Sovann and Sambath stayed with their parents, they did not have access to many of the basic rights of childhood, such as proper, regular health care and schooling. The two boys stayed with their parents until 2012, when they brought Sovann home to live with his grandparents so he could go to school. His mother and father returned to Thailand.
In 2013, a car accident left Chap Chruok, Sovann’s father, with serious wounds on his face. The couple returned home for treatment, spending their hard-earned money on medical bills. As his condition worsened, Chruok began drinking alcohol. He and his wife argued daily, often violently. One day in 2014, he took her life.
The boys were taken in by their grandparents. The elderly couple’s main income is from the rice they produce on their one hectare of land, yielding 600 kilogrammes a year. Even with support from their other children, the grandparents struggled to care of the boys.
But the Commune Council has stepped in to help.
“The Commune Council has provided relief in times of emergency, like sleeping mats, blankets and mosquito nets and food. My grandsons also received school uniforms and learning materials from the commune,” says the grandfather. With the help of the commune, they also received an ID Poor card so all members of the family can receive medical service free at the nearest health centre and hospital.
UNICEF has worked with commune councils in Cambodian villages like Yeang since 2011 to introduce social services that directly benefit the most vulnerable children and women. By providing training on social services delivery and an initial budget, UNICEF is assisting the communes in changing traditional ways of spending: in Yeang, rather than committing all funds to infrastructural projects like new roads, the Commune Council is now channeling support to social services for the most vulnerable community members.
This assistance enables Sovann and Sambath’s grandparents to properly care for the boys.
The grandmother is happy that the two boys are growing quickly, performing well at school and living happily in the family. She was initially hesitant to care for the boys considering her and her husband’s age. “Some people in the village told me about the orphanage in Siem Reap town and I was interested in sending them there. However, the boys did not want to leave us and we felt great pity for them. We then decided not to separate them from their family.”
Many children in Cambodia are unnecessarily placed in residential care, fueling a proliferation of ‘orphanages’ that has grown dramatically over the last years. However, children have the right to be cared for and to grow up in a loving and caring family environment whenever possible. That’s why it is important to support vulnerable families so they are better able to provide for their children and to keep children within their community and family.
The grandmother’s understanding about the importance of family care has been further sharpened by awareness and support from the Commune Council about the disadvantages of sending children to live in residential care. With UNICEF guidance, the council has implemented a practice that any family who wants to send a child to an institution must first meet with the commune chief and get his/her approval. This is a measure to prevent unnecessary separation of children from their families and promote family and community care.
With this local support network, Sovann is performing very well at school. He currently ranks third out of 30 students in his class. He has made good friends and gets along well with his classmates and neighbours. His dream is to be a teacher when he grows up.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.