Monday, March 16, 2015

Bringing UNICEF’s Work to Life through Stories

By Rowena Campbell

Rowena Campbell has worked with UNICEF UK and UNICEF Cambodia country office. She shares her experience of working ‘in the field’.

Pumping water in a community in Kratie province.
©UNICEF Korea/2014/Hong Jang Hyun
PHNOM PENH, Camboida, 17 March 2015 - The welcoming smiles of my colleagues, the chatter and noise of the office, the patience and passion of my team, the rush and pace of the work; bouncing along dusty roads to the provinces, the UNICEF drivers pointing out everything and anything; my colleagues encouraging me to try every roadside delicacy going (the delicious and the downright terrifying); talking with strong, inspiring women, hearing their stories, writing their stories; photographing the beauty of Cambodia and the children of Cambodia, making every day count, in helping Cambodia’s children reach their full potential. 

This is what I miss from my job with UNICEF Cambodia.

After three years with UNICEF in the UK, a year with UNICEF in Cambodia was an eye opening, challenging and rewarding journey. I’d gone from a fundraisingoffice in London, working with journalists to tell the story of what UNICEF does around the world and encouraging the British public to donate money to its programmes, to seeing the work of UNICEF on the ground in Cambodia.

In many ways it’s not so different working in Cambodia. There are still the endless emails to go through, the newspapers to review in the morning, the meetings, calls to journalists, and brainstorming sessions to find ways to creatively engage Cambodians in UNICEF’s work. But, the crucial difference is the field work.

With colleagues in Prey Veng province, on one of my many field trips.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2014

My time spent in the field with my passionate and knowledge colleagues was the absolute highlight of my time there; the colours, sounds, smells, stories, experiences and emotions.

I had the privilege of travelling to Battambang and Siem Reap to support photo workshops teaching children about their rights, and to the furthest north-east corner of the country, Rattanakiri and Kratie provinces, to meet ethnic communities and learn how they are receiving vaccines to protect them from deadly but preventable diseases. In Phnom Penh I visited urban poor communities to see health outreach teams in action, while on trips to Kandal, Prey Veng, Svay Rieng and Kampong Cham I saw UNICEF-supported Water, Sanitation and Hygiene projects bringing safe water, sanitation services and hygiene education to rural communities; nutrition projects getting children with malnutrition back to health; children with HIV receiving peer encouragement to maintain their anti-retroviral treatment; community preschools providing children aged 3 to 5 with the social, learning and thinking skills to prepare them for primary school; and child protection programmes for vulnerable children and children with disabilities, that give them the chance to learn and play.

Each visit was rewarding and challenging in its own way. Particularly when hosting visitors from around the world. It’s important for fundraising offices like UNICEF in the UK to travel to countries such as Cambodia to see first-hand the programmes they help to fund. So during my time there I helped to host numerous visits from UNICEF colleagues around the world who bring with them journalists who need to find powerful stories, celebrities who can use their public profile to talk about an important issue, film crews to make fundraising documentaries, corporate partners to understand better UNICEF’s work, and politicians so they can use the power of their voice to influence change for the better.

I met this Cambodian woman a number of times on my field trip to Kratie province. Despite the language barrier we had a lot of fun getting to know each other.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2014/Meas Bunly

Reaching the hardest to reach

Above all others, one mission does stand out in my mind. It was a trip to Ratanakiri to bring to life UNICEF’s work in Cambodia through UNICEF’s equity message – reaching the hardest to reach children. This means, it’s not good enough to immunise, for example, 95% of children in a country. We need to reach 100% of children, including the last 5% who live in the most remote or isolated communities, like Ratanakiri in north-east Cambodia. The indigenous people, who live in this area in mountains and forests, still use traditional birthing practices and have strong cultural beliefs: among them, that bad luck will come to the community if the mother or baby dies during delivery away from the village.

In Cambodia, reaching the hardest to reach children can be told through the story of UNICEF’s work to eliminate Maternal and Newborn Tetanus (MNT). The disease has been eliminated in most countries, but there are still 15 countries to go. Cambodia is one of them. I’d never heard of it before I started working at UNICEF but MNT is a very real threat to pregnant women around the world (1 baby dies every 9 minutes from MNT). Newborn tetanus causes a new baby to get what is sometimes known as ‘lockjaw’. Its effects are excruciating as the newborn suffers painful convulsions and the body and jaw stiffens, which means it can’t breastfeed and in effect starves to death. Horrific.

But the good news is it can be eliminated. Vaccines, clean delivery and behaviour change are key. Girls and women of child-bearing age should be vaccinated and deliver their babies in health centres or hospitals with trained midwifes and sterile equipment, not on dirty ground at home with only a traditional birth attendant (TBA).

Tetanus spores live in the soil and dirt where they can come into contact at open wounds during home births. For many women in Ratanakiri who have just given birth, it is still the norm for the TBA to cut the umbilical cord with a piece of shell or bamboo and then close the wound by rubbing spider web or animal dung onto it – these are exactly the kind of actions that encourage tetanus.

UNICEF uses outreach health volunteers to travel to these communities to deliver tetanus toxoid vaccines, conduct anti-natal checks on pregnant women and to educate them about the importance of a clean safe delivery in a health centre. Not an easy job, but through UNICEF’s multi-pronged approach progress is being made.

Reaching one of these ethnic communities in the most remote corner of Cambodia brought me face to face with the story of how UNICEF reaches every last child, wherever they are.

Attempting to cross one of the many wooden bridges in Ratanakiri province.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2014/Rowena Campbell
A two hour drive in the pouring rain along a bumpy road, dipping down onto little ‘bridges’ (in reality just a few planks of wood) to cross streams and ridges in the road, was followed by a ferry trip across the Mekong river. The ferry, which consisted of three large canoes strapped together with a rickety engine at the back, successfully transported me, colleagues and the car across the river without any of us toppling in!
The UNICEF car prepares to disembark from the ferry in Ratanakiri.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2014/Rowena Campbell
On the other side of the river bank we skidded our way along a dirt track before reaching our next challenge: a steep, muddy road. We saw another car stuck at the bottom, unable to move forward or back on the slippery slope and local people on ‘motos’ [motorbikes] valiantly attempting to push their vehicles to the top with the help of others. Though we wavered between being adventurous and sensible, reason prevailed and we turned back to take a different route on foot.

The steep muddy hill in Ratanakiri that forced us to turn back and change our route.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2014/Rowena Campbell
On reaching another river, this one much smaller, we hopped into the local fisherman’s canoe to make the crossing to the other side. Crouching in the canoe (which was the width of my body and as shallow as a fifth of my leg) I gripped its edges as we travelled across the river, water leaking in at the top and soaking my shoes.

The second river we had to cross on our journey through Ratanakiri province.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2014/Rowena Campbell
Arriving on the other side and after scrambling up the bank, we eventually reached the village. Wooden houses, high on stilts, lined a path running the length of the village while piglets and chickens rushed about. The women walked with a very slow sway in their step, smoking home grown tobacco in long wooden pipes, their babies on their hips. Shy and reserved, they took some time to smile and chat. Like Khmers who make up 90 per cent of the Cambodian population, the Kavet ethnic community has been in Cambodia for hundreds of years. The Kavet speak their own language. To communicate, the village chief translated from Kavet to Khmer and then my colleague translated from Khmer to English; it wasn’t easy. I smiled often to show that I was following and they did likewise, shyly and with a little uncertainty. However, it wasn’t long before a kind of conversation was in full flow in three different languages.

It was an adventurous and inspiring experience: the journey to reach the community; the time spent with its residents, talking and getting to know the mothers, children, village chief and traditional birth attendants; and witnessing the health team deliver vital healthcare and education to the villagers. I was impressed with UNICEF’s dedication to reach these remote communities to ensure they do not lose out. And already the difference is obvious. One young pregnant mum told me that she had a canoe ready to take her to the health centre across the river as she goes into labour, so that she can give birth safely with a trained midwife and sterile equipment. This story alone shows the success of UNICEF’s work.

I am immensely proud to have worked for UNICEF for the last four years and feel very emotional about my time in Cambodia. I will always savour the memories and experiences of this field trip and will always remember this incredible highlight of my career.

Two girls share a secret at the village in Ratanakiri.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2014/Rowena Campbell

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