I’m here in Cambodia as part of a month long visit to The Asia Foundation‘s country offices in my new role as Director, Women’s Empowerment Program. While spending time with our country office here, my friend, Jen, invited me on a night time tour with Scott Neeson, founder of Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF).
I’m night walking with Scott through the dump fields of Phnom Penh. We’re carrying flashlights while Scott gives me a running narrative about the families who we’re walking by and meeting. These are the families who scavenge for food and goods that they can re-sell in order to eke out enough money to stay alive. We turn the corner and Scott says to me “These people are lucky, they don’t have to pay rent.” I see a simple dwelling that is perched atop a mound of ground garbage with a family living there and looking up at us as we say hello.
“This girl was beaten regularly until we managed to help her come to school. You can see the change in her since these photo were taken” and Scott pulls out his phone and scrolls down to show me photos of her with her face bruised and red with welts.
“This boy’s parents are meth addicts and he’s been subject to constant violence. His sister has been sexually abused multiple times by her uncle and so we have them both now in school and in a safe space as well as being supported with counselling and nutrition programs.”
“These twin girls were badly malnourished before we found them. Now they benefit from the nutritional meals we serve at school and the students help with serving these meals, which gives them a sense of responsibility, community and service” Scott says. He pulls out his phone and shows me more photos of children abused and cut and violated. Scott has captured and recorded evidence of all these violations and gives a case by case report of many of the children we meet on the walk.
Scott points to the community housing, built in partnership with ‘World Housing’. It’s in close proximity to the school to provide people with the kind of home that provides stability and security and a chance to break free from the trash heap existence that is both perilous and soul destroying.
The rain is a constant and I’ve been given sturdy gumboots to navigate the slip and slop of wading through wet garbage as we visit families.
It’s hard to describe what it’s like spending this time with Scott. He has a photographic memory that allows remarkable recall of each child and family we visit and he gives me the rundown of their history and current circumstance. His love for the children and commitment to this work is obvious in everything he says and does. He matches this with a business savvy which has helped the organization to build powerful partnerships and support a genuine slum village movement. Buying buildings for schools and community spaces and establishing a strong community housing program is also helping to cement the long term sustainability of this community.
All of this from a man who was the president of 20th Century Fox International until a trip to Phnom Penh changed the course of his life. Before starting a new role at Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2003, Scott took a five-week trip to Asia. Asking a friend to show him the “real Cambodia,” Scott arrived at the Steung Meanchey garbage dump on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. “The moment I stepped there it was the single most impactful moment in my life. I was standing there facing into the abyss. The smell was almost visible. There were kids everywhere. In some cases, they’d been left there by parents who didn’t want them,” Scott recalled. In 2004, Scott sold his house, cars and yacht and relocated to Phnom Penh, and began working with the children of Steung Meanchey. From 45 students in the first year, CCF has grown under Scott’s guidance to provide education and a pathway out of poverty for more than 2,300 students and their families.
What is needed now is funding to support this work to be sustainable beyond the life and investment of its founder. That of course is the beauty and power of core funding, whether from individuals or institutions, beyond the funds for specific initiatives. It allows an organization to invest in its own staff and systems and to create a sustainable model for generational change. It also allows an organization such as CCF to test new approaches and build learning communities so that other communities can adapt and replicate this kind of approach to their own situation.
CCF also has a child sponsorship program, and it’s different to most of the others I know. If you become a sponsor then you build a personal relationship with the child you’re sponsoring. All communication still goes via the staff, for reasons of child protection, although donors are encouraged to email regularly and to visit so that they become another support person in the child’s life. Donors tend to fund a child through to the end of school, and often through university too, thus ensuring the financial support to sustain a young person’s access to education, health and housing through these formative years. Some donors become strong mentors to the child or children they’re sponsoring, and the organization also seeks to build other mentoring opportunities for the students it supports.
We enter a house where the family situation has stabilized due to new work opportunities and children are thriving at the school. The youngest girl squeals with delight when she sees Scott and jumps into his arms while her mother watches on with a smile. Scott speaks to the young girl in Khmer and the other children smile shyly at me and the others on the walk.
There are many families who have made their shack shelters as liveable as possible and who take great pride in keeping them clean and organized. They all want a conversation with Scott and he’s happy to stop and talk. The rain has returned, lightly now, and I wonder how these families cope with the monsoonal rains when they come.
We’ve been walking for quite a while when suddenly, running full tilt toward Scott with a high pitched scream is a hunchback, with obvious glee to see the man he idolizes. The hunchback’s very old and very happy.
Further along our walk, Scott slows and whispers to us, “Here are the meth men who gather to make meth, use it and sell it.” Scott greets the men as we walk past them, shadowy figures focused on the work at hand. I ask Scott how he deals with the men who are sustaining the violence through meth and drink. “We’re changing this situation,” Scott says steadfastly, almost defiantly. “We’re changing the reality for a new generation of children and young people so that this will not be their reality.” His focus and approach is laser sharp.
The message is clear. Don’t inflame the conflict and tensions and instead work to find practical solutions to what people are experiencing.’ Recognize that alcohol and meth are the strike match to the fire that is poverty, neglect, lack of hope, boredom and depression that fuels the violence .
There is a strong imperative by Scott and his team to change a culture where rape and violence is normalized and where people have had little hope that another life is possible. I meet Kram Sok Channoeurn who is CCF’s country manager and has been with Scott since the beginning to make this change a reality. Her commitment is as total as Scott’s.
Earlier, Scott’s colleague, Nicky Ward, had given me a tour of the schools and facilities. From the moment we stepped inside the school grounds, children were hurling themselves at us, arms outstretched, eyes imploring us to lift them up. The outpouring of love and need from these children was poignant as I scooped up a girl and felt the tug of my shirt by many small hands.
These children are getting a primary and secondary education as a result of this work, and all children who are eligible have an opportunity to be supported to go on to university. Here the focus is on a two generational approach to flip poverty on its head and give these children access to the kind of education that will expand their choice, expertise and world view.
We are at the end of our walk and we stand in front of the foundations of a new academy, The Neeson-Cripps Academy, made possible by a funding partnership with the Cripps Family and Velcro Companies, is due to be opened in early 2017. This is the culmination of many years’ work and the Academy will provide at-risk Cambodian children with high quality education opportunities. These opportunities will include access to the latest digital technologies, teacher training, a focus on STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and quality study spaces.
The academy is a vibrant opportunity and intervention in an environment where the level of violence remains extremely high.
“When men can’t fulfil a role of taking care of their families and having access to a job that can contribute to their wellbeing, that’s the start of the downward spiral of violence and abuse,” Scott says.
The Asia Foundation has been working on a program to address gender based violence perpetrated by intimate partners, and part of this program has involved tracking the impact of alcohol advertising. The foundation monitored five television channels and 1,300 hours of advertising, broken down to 15 minute timeslots and 40,000 minutes. From this analysis, 70% of the advertising was alcohol endorsement related. This is in a country where alcohol is unregulated and where even 5 year olds can buy alcohol.
Of course, the broadcasters have a vested interest in the status quo since revenue from the alcohol companies is high. Advertising is cheap with high returns for the alcohol companies in the form of alcohol sales. Heineken and Carlsberg are the multinational alcohol companies in Cambodia. Heineken also has a 100% stake in a brewery in Phnom Penh, and both alcohol companies enjoy excellent relationships with key ministers and politicians.
Beyond the alcohol advertising is the link between media and alcohol, and the level of violent content on television programs. Media monitoring research conducted by The Asia Foundation shows that on the five largest regional broadcasters, 31% of aired programs contain violence against women. Those five channels account for nearly 80% of Cambodian viewership, according to a 2015 survey.
“We’re living in the wild, wild west here,” says one person commenting on the current situation. “Advertising on television is very cheap and so alcohol companies get a big bang for their buck. And then there’s alcohol tourism, with people traveling here from neighboring countries due to it being easier and cheaper to drink alcohol here than in many other places. There’s no political will or incentive to change the status quo. That’s going to come from community pressure, donor pressure, international pressure to change.”
Perhaps the best hope we have is for this international pressure to be brought to bear on the multinational companies that have a reputational risk. At present they are taking advantage of the unregulated environment without adhering to any set of values or ethical standards in how they operate in this context.
The research shows that when men drink they are 2.3 times more likely to be violent. The deregulated environment also means that people are desensitized to violence – there are no health warnings for children’s exposure to alcohol let alone any kind of community prevention campaign. In Cambodia, half of sexual violence occurs before the age in 19. According to a United Nations report, ”more than 1 in 5 Cambodian men aged between 18 and 49 admit to having raped a woman, and more than half committed their first rape before the age of 20.”
This in a country where alcohol can look like soda pop. “The fun is in the pop,” as one alcohol company says in its promotion.
After my exposure to the circumstance, commitment and phenomenon of Cambodian Children’s Fund, as that is how I see it – more a phenomenon than a regular organization – I’m curious to return to see the Duong Prateep Foundation in Bangkok. This was an organization I first visited when I was doing research into child prostitution and trafficking in 1998 as part of an ethics fellowship. At that time I went to meet Prateep Ungsongtham, the founder of Duong Prateep Foundation. She had created a school for slum dwellers and was supporting a movement of slum communities to break out of violence and to ensure girls were rescued from prostitution and trafficking.
Her story began in the 1960s. Prateep Ungsongtham was a teenage girl living in the slums and working on the docks to pay her way through a teacher training college. She had spent only four years at primary school but this was enough to show her that education could transform lives. As a 12-year-old worker she began to save her meagre wages to pay for secondary education at night school. She was awarded a place at a college of education and, since there were no schools for the slum children, she decided to open one herself at her home in the slum.
Now, after 38 years, the Duang Prateep Foundation operates over 20 programs in the fields of education, child abuse, and welfare. This includes community kindergartens, rehabilitation centers, in-home support, a local credit union and a community center.
Visiting Nittaya Proporcheunbun and Monwarin Boontang, two of the CCF staff, on my return, they reiterate what has been a central focus of the foundation’s work. “The problems of the poor are the problems of the whole country.”
Now people are living above the poverty line and have managed to break out of the level of violence and hopelessness that once characterized this community. This community even galvanized its resources to support victims of the Asian Tsunami, reaching across the waters to another community devastated by disaster and needing support in the form of housing, education and healthcare.
The problems now are of a different kind. Urban sprawl has made the land where this community resides very valuable. Re-zoned for business, the government wants to reclaim this land so that it can lease or sell to business interests and relocate 80,000 people in this community to high rise accommodation or dwellings far beyond the city.
“Our community leaders are meeting almost every night,” the women tell me. “People who are poor choose to live in the city because most labor jobs are in the city and we need to be close as otherwise it’s very difficult due to the cost of transport, childcare and healthcare. People working as food vendors and cleaners all rely on each other and on their proximity to one another. Condominiums are isolating and they break community. However, this is the option given to people here who are poor – to move to the condos provided by the Port Authority or to go further afield.”
There is a new movement rising – the Right to Cities movement. This is a movement of people helping each other in solidarity and working to advocate for their right to stay in the city. It is one based on unity, vision and participation. Connected to policy level research and advocacy to arrest the core drivers of this situation – poverty, easy access to drugs and alcohol – and it’s a potent mix to drive reform.
I think back to what Scott Neeson, Kram Sok Channoeurn and their team have done with Cambodian Children’s Fund. The organization is helping people to have their own homes and they are buying the land and buildings for schools and community facilities. They are helping the Steung Meanchey community to gain a foothold on this Right to Cities movement. They are building on work started by other great organizations in other countries, such as that of the Duang Prateep Foundation. And The Asia Foundation is working to influence the policy and regulatory environment that will be essential to stem the violence and secure the level of change required to transform a country.
This work is vital to ensure that we don’t lose another generation of children due to abuse, neglect, lack of education and lack of belief in a different future. This is a profound gift – to a specific community and to each of us seeking inspiration and affirmation of our common humanity.
Also published on Medium.