Tuesday, 19 October 2010

A week in Kuala Lumpur

So I have just arrived back from a week’s trip to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur (or KL to those of us in the know!) so I thought I’d share a little bit about my adventure there.

After having been in a developing country for over a year I had almost forgotten what it could be like. The airport felt massive and there were chain shops everywhere, I saw Body Shop and Mac Donald’s and Starbucks all within several feet of the airport exit and I immediately felt a little overwhelmed.

After a quick shuttle bus ride to the main train terminal in KL we hopped on the monorail system to get to our hotel. It felt very strange to be on a train again and I managed to get my first glimpse of the fame ‘Petronas Twin Towers’ which dominate the KL skyline. One of the first things that struck me about KL was how high everything was. In Cambodia there are very few high rise buildings, even in Phnom Penh there are only a couple, so it felt strange to be suddenly surrounded by these huge towering buildings.
Another aspect of KL which really caught my attention was just how multi-cultural it is. There are Indians, Chinese, Malay and a whole range of other ethnicities who have large populations in the city and seem to have created one unique identity rather than fragmented ones. The same goes for religion, the country is officially Islamic but there are huge communities of Hidus, Buddhists, Christians and Sikhs living side by side, and peacefully, which gives KL an amazing and diverse culture and identity.

The hotel we stayed in was located very centrally, only 5 minutes walk to the main shopping malls and 10 from the towers. More importantly it also had a bath which made me very happy indeed, I think I had one every day!

KL is not the place to start a diet that is for sure. The range and quality of food available is amazing. From street food (although this did seem quite similar to Cambodia!) all the way through to Michelin starred restaurants. I am definitely in love with Malaysian Satay, which are skewers of chicken or beef (no pork in a Muslim country remember) served with a thick peanut sauce. Brilliant. I also tried Japanese Tapan yaka, which is where they cook your dinner on a long hot plate which everyone sits around with the chef in the middle.
There is also ample opportunity to eat western food and I must admit to having a lovely Italian one night yum!
Alcohol, however, is very far from cheap and although might seem fairly reasonable for you Londoners I found the prices shocking. No heavy nights out for me! I did manage to have a few cocktails in the amazing Sky Bar in Traders hotel, which has a great view of the Petronas Towers, courtesy of ladies night and some lovely people with jobs!

During my stay I managed to make it out to the amazing Batu caves, around 30km out of town, which are an ancient Hindu shrine and involve a steep walk up 286 steps in 35 degree heat! I also made it up with towers for an amazing view of the city and out to the Forestry Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) where I went on a jungle hike which involved an incredible view from the tops of the trees, 60m above ground, 2050ft above sea level and a great vista of KL city itself.

I certainly managed to do a lot in my short visit to the city and I’m glad I had the opportunity to see more of Asia before I head home.

Right now I am trying to wrap up all my work with VSO here in Mondulkiri along with packing up all my life as I am leaving in 10 days and flying home on 31st October. Time is really flying now and before I know it I’ll be back in the freezing cold of the UK, searching for a job...!

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Karaoke, beer and sexual violence: how gender inequality is hindering efforts to achieve the MDGs

Below is an interesting article from KHANA (Khmer HIV/AIDS Alliance) highlighting the serious sexual gender inequalities present in Cambodia.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) consist of eight aspirations for a future free form extreme poverty. The goals tackle serious global issues such as hunger, education, child mortality, maternal health, HIV and gender equality.

Research shows that internationally women are subjected to bear a disproportionate burden of poverty due to the systematic discrimination they face in terms of education, health care, employment and control of assets. If inequality between men and women is hindering Cambodia’s efforts to achieve the MDGS, should we increase our focus on women to achieve the MDGs?

An ancient Khmer proverb says, “A man is gold, a woman is a white piece of cloth.” Gold can get dirty or be dropped in the mud, but it can be polished and become as shiny as new, if white cloth is dropped in the mud, it will be forever stained and soiled. This is a sad reflection of how Cambodian society traditionally views women’s sexuality. The massive double standards mean that women often lack their sexual rights and autonomy.

Extreme poverty is the main force driving women into commercial and transactional sex work in Cambodia. This takes place in a variety of settings from brothels and streets to karaoke bars and beer gardens. Entertainment workers (EW) report often report pressure from clients to have sex without condoms and in some cases, clients will offer to pay more for unprotected sex. To women living in poverty this can be hard to refuse. A report for Pharmaciens Sans Frontiers in 2007 showed that 20 % of EW were infected with STIs every month, indicating low condom use.

The majority of married women in Cambodia have to accept that their husbands will have extramarital sexual relationships with paid and unpaid partners. Men are more likely to use condoms with paid partners but many do not use condoms consistently with unpaid partners. The result is that married women account for 43% of new HIV infections (NCHADS 2008).

In a culture that promotes men’s rights to sexual pleasure and silences female sexuality, sexual violence is endemic. EWs are often viewed as ‘spoiled women’ and as such they frequently endure harassment, rape and violence from a variety of perpetrators.

Rape at the hands of clients is a common experience for most EW and according to USAID (2006), a shocking 54.8% of freelance female sex workers were gang-raped in the past year. Furthermore, a recent Human Rights Watch (2010) report highlighted the horrifying experiences that EW suffer, committed by authorities including police who are meant to protect all Cambodian citizens. The report documented widespread cases of rape, torture, violence and arbitrary detention.

Sexual violence is not limited to entertainment workers. There is a lack of reliable data on rape statistics, including rape of children but NGO and government sources say that it is on the increase. Domestic rape is against the law in Cambodia but it is common and is rarely reported to authorities.

According to Amnesty International (2010), rape in Cambodia goes largely unreported due to a number of reasons, EW who are raped do not trust the police, there is a general lack of confidence that the perpetrator will be convicted and furthermore there is often stigma around rape victims and a shame that cannot be shaken. Apart from the massive rights violations that are inflicted on all women during rape, there is also a risk of HIV transmission and unwanted pregnancies.

The Demographic and Health Survey (2005) asserts that 19% of births between 2000 and 2005 were unwanted. This indicates that women lack control over decisions over family planning. It also indicates that Cambodian women have a lack of access to contraception and safe abortion services. This is a serious problem as unsafe abortions account for 14% of maternal deaths in South East Asia.

The third MDG specifically calls on countries to “promote gender equality and empower women,” but as discussed above, gender inequality is hindering the progress of several goals including those on HIV, maternal health and child mortality amongst others.

Although gender inequality has a disproportionate effect on women, it is by no means a women’s problem. Gender includes men and women and as such, men need to take greater responsibility for their roles in gender inequality, maternal health and HIV prevention. They need to identify what actions they must take to redress the issues involved, both to re-instate human rights for women and for the future of the whole country.

A Very Dry Rainy Season

This year Cambodia is experiencing a relative drought compared to the usual levels of rain during the Monsoon season. Before it started I was warned that it could rain all day, every day, for weeks on end in Mondulkiri, however, we’re lucky at the moment if it rains for an hour a day. Most days it is dry.

Although it feels pretty wet to me after months and months of complete dryness the lack of heavy rain is causing huge problems with crops, especially rice.
When I arrived in Cambodia last year, what I remember most is the severe flooding. This year aid agencies have already begun to help dealing with the drought and the likely ensuing food shortages. Food security is a big issue here in Cambodia, with many families unable to feed themselves adequately it becomes almost impossible to have an effective process of development. In order for education to take on a more important role it is necessary for people to have regular access to enough food. This in turn leads to better health and more time to focus on education.
In many of the villages I work in there is little to no food security. What the family eats that day is in direct response to how much they have managed to produce on the farm or work they have completed. This means that many children are pulled out of school in order to help the family on the farm or to care for younger siblings so their mother can work.

The school term starts on 1st October and the month of September is all about enrolment. I will be working with school directors and communities to ensure that every child of school age enrols in school. Keeping them there however is another kettle of fish entirely. Currently in Cambodia only 59% of children who enrol graduate from grade 6. It is in the rural, indigenous communities where it is hardest to keep the children in class and who can really blame them? When it is a choice between eating that day or sitting in a class where you don’t understand the language the teacher is speaking? I think the key to student retention in these schools is to make the education as relevant as possible to the children. However, teachers have to stick to the curriculum and there is limited support available for bilingual education.

With five years left until the Millennium Development Goals deadline, Cambodia has its work cut out to provide Education for All.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Pu Trom Cha Community Well Project Complete!

On Saturday 14th August our little VSO team (Jeltje, Chak and I) set about helping the community of Pu Trom Cha to finish the school’s well. It was dug by members of the local community after a community meeting where the School Director identified the lack of water at the school as a major issue preventing the children from attending. Many children would walk home as they were thirsty and then not return to classes as it was too far. Now the school has a well and a water filter they no longer need to do this so can stay in class for longer and have a more conducive learning atmosphere. The well has also enabled the school to set about creating a garden for growing vegetables and medicinal plants. These will be used to help support the students either by giving them additional food or by using the proceeds from any sales to buy resources for the school.
When we arrived at the school the first thing I noticed was the new fence built around the well and an area soon to be a garden, the wood and labour for which were donated by the community and school director. This was great as the school and community had worked together, without my direct involvement, in order to achieve this after it was suggested in a previous meeting. This fence will keep the buffalo and cows out of the garden area, which is always good when you’re trying to grown plants!

The well was hand dug to a depth of 35 meters, a meter wide. Looking down to the reflective water at the bottom is a vertigo inducing experience and I can’t think of anything worse than being at the bottom!

So, what was now necessary was building a low circular wall around the well to prevent unsuspecting animals and children from falling down a 35m hole and contaminating the water. With the money raised from home I was able to purchase 300 bricks, concrete, sand and tools in order to build this structure. As there was to be a blessing ceremony I also provided food for the community members and the eponymous ‘jar wine’. This is fermented rice mixed with leaves and herbs and is the traditional celebration drink for the local indigenous Bunong people. It is also very, very strong.
Once we had completed the first foundation level and a ring of bricks a break was taken to eat the food and begin the ceremony. A chicken had been killed (somewhere in the village fortunately) and its cooked body was brought and it’s liver mixed with rice and given as an offering to the spirits of the well. They also gave fruit and some of the wine along with small pieces of charcoal wrapped in wool. The air was thick with incense sticks and chanting during the ceremony to wish luck on the well and the school, urging bad spirits to stay away. The religion of the Bunong is one of worshipping the spirits of the forest and is not Buddhism, although the incense, chanting and offerings make it seem similar.

After the ceremony we were asked to join in the rice wine drinking, which I tried and failed to get out of with the excuse of having to ride my motorbike back across the dodgy roads. Jeltje and I were plonked in front of the communal straws sticking out of the jars with the wine made from rain water. There was no way out other than to drink the required cup full, after which I stood up and immediately felt the alcohol go straight to my head!

So after some more wine drinking the work resumed on the wall building and we now had a ring of bricks started. At this point Jeltje and I decided to chip in and help with the brick laying and although it is definitely seen as ‘mans work’ we were allowed to join and after a while the men accepted us into the team and we all worked together to complete it. It was also at this point that the rain began, causing all us brick layers to get soaked to the skin while the rest of the community wisely retreated back into the school!
It took around 5 hours to complete the structure and cover it in concrete. When the concrete has dried out in a couple of weeks, the children and school director will paint the names of all those who contributed to the well building project onto the outside of the well.

This project has been a great success for this tiny school in rural Cambodia. The community have supported and worked with the school in order to improve the learning environment for their children, which will in turn enable them to access better education.

Now the Community and School Director are completely on board they are keen to get going on the next project here which is the community garden and hopefully a library too!

So thank you again to those who gave funds to this great cause, your help has really improved the lives of the children attending this school and given them an increased opportunity to stay in education.

Friday, 6 August 2010

And so It Begins...

The rainy season has now officially started making everything exceedingly green and more importantly, exceedingly muddy!

This change has been gratefully received by the people here as the rains have been very late arriving this year. Wells have been running dry and paddy fields unable to yield rice.

I have seen the awful flooding experienced in China and Pakistan and am hoping Cambodia is spared this tragedy. During the end of the rainy season last year Cambodia suffered greatly from severe flooding. This was especially prominent in North East Cambodia, in Rattanakiri Province. Here many villages were washed away entirely and then cut off by flooding caused by Vietnam opening its overwhelmed flood gates when Typhoon Ketsana hit. Vietnam paid for a significant amount of aid for the region, along with support from the UN and CARE, however, it will takes years for it to fully recover.

There are also many problems in Phnom Penh with flooding as many natural water reservoirs and reclaimed for development. During heavy downpours in the Capital the drainage system is quickly overwhelmed and it is not unusual to be wading through streets with water up to your knees, whilst trying not to think about how disgusting the water is and whether that was in fact a rat which just floated past.
Many residents are also experiencing increased problems with flooding in Phnom Penh. Especially in the areas surrounding the Boeung Kang Keng Lake in the North of the city, where most has been filled in order to build tower blocks. I remember last year, shortly after I arrived in Cambodia, reading about an entire family who were killed when electrical cables came into contact with the flood water in their house and they attempted to save each other from the live water.

So although the monsoon season brings joy for agriculture and a break from the blistering heat it also brings issues of its own which can have tragic results.

Things are very slow for me at the moment here in Mondulkiri as the schools are now closed and it is a busy agricultural period for the communities. The muddy and carved up state of the roads also seriously limits where I can go on the motorbike (I am not a motocross driver!).

The rain has also returned the jungle to its lush green state which is beautiful. I wish a photograph could do it justice and convey the beauty and scale but it simply cannot.

I was also recently involved in a meeting to discuss the planning of a community involvement and National Volunteering (NV) project in Cambodia. This was a very interesting exercise and gave us the opportunity to share our experiences and discuss strategies and objectives for the project.
For me it was a good opportunity to look back at the work I have done here so far. It has also helped me to write some very constructive notes for my replacement!

10 weeks to go....

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Things you should know about working in Cambodia

· Rubber soled shoes should be worn at all times in the office to prevent electric shocks from unearthed, dodgy wiring. Seriously. It took several shocks and a numb arm to learn this lesson.

·Your Khmer colleagues will often mysteriously disappear from the office without a word. You later learn this was to go to an important meeting no one thought of inviting you to. Again.

· It is possible for someone’s job to appear to be cutting and gluing. The occasional bit of writing is sometimes involved, along with reorganising photographs.

·Rats break photocopy machines and then die inside them until someone starts to wonder what the smell is. This also shows how often the machine is used...

· Your boss will randomly enter the office, stating that no matter how much you like the current office set up he thinks it is most important that you have your own desk with your own drawer.

· You will only be informed of meetings you are supposed to attend either five minutes before, half way through or several days later when someone asks why you weren’t there.

·The above mentioned very important meetings will always be on days your translator is unavailable.

·Every meeting will involved several hours (not a joke) of speeches where officials repeat the same thing as each other, then read a speech from the PM saying the exact same.

·Pate (sandwiches involving an unidentifiable slab of processed meat) and bottled water are usually the only reason people turn up. When not provided general resentment ensues.

·One of the office computers will be so riddled with virus’s it can no longer save documents, the other one will not be able to type in Khmer any longer. One of these will always be in the computer repair shop (someone’s garage).

· Lack of the correct tools or materials will never stop a Khmer person. Where there is a will there is always a way.

·The statistics charts on the walls will be at least two years behind.

·No-one knows where anyone else is, what they’re doing or when they’ll be back. This counts for you too even though you write your weekly agenda on a board in the office and get in translated.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

The Temples of Angkor

After being in Cambodia for ten months I felt it was about time for me to visit the biggest tourist attraction here, the ancient Angkorian Temples in Siem Reap. Two of my friends, Sophie and Steph, decided to visit me so I knew this was the perfect opportunity for me to see them for myself.

I had heard many things about the area and seen lots of pictures; however, it did not stop me from being amazed by the scale, magnificence and scope of the Temples. Building started in around 900BC and the site was still occupied until the 14th Century, with the religious focus changing gradually from Hinduism brought from India to Buddhism brought from China.

The Temple complex is on a scale difficult to describe, with the entire region covering miles and miles of rolling hills, flat plains, lakes and jungle. In most cases the Temples have in fact been reclaimed by the jungle, with many having trees growing over, on top or off the crumbling stone structures. This is famously shown in the ‘Tomb Raider’ movie with Angelina Jolie (incidentally, whilst filming in Cambodia she adopted her first child, a local Cambodian).

The architecture is amazing and the attention to detail is breathtaking, with every stone carved by hand with beautiful images. A visit to the Museum in Siem Reap is a must to try and understand the history of the place. Our brilliant tuk-tuk driver Ken took us all around and even to some temples off the beaten track which was great. What it is difficult to describe is the intense heat of place, I seriously don’t think I’ve ever been so hot! I have to admit, when it got too much a lot of ‘culture absorption’ stops were needed (this basically consists of us sitting in the shade in a temple, drinking water and trying to stop sweating profusely...nice!).

The town of Siem Reap is also a pleasant place, with lots going on for tourists and many restaurants and bars which were a nice change from the provincial Cambodia I am used to!
The Temples of Angkor are definitely worth a visit if you’re ever in SE Asia, I cannot recommend them highly enough. It is difficult to try and describe them and no matter how many pictures you see it does not capture the feeling of actually walking around these ancient wonders.

The next big holiday stop was one which was far less full of culture, but equally as enjoyable-the beach! The white sand, blue sea and cocktails were just what was needed after a week of Temple bagging. Other than the odd monsoon (helpfully at 12am...just as we were about to leave the bar which meant we got stuck there until 5:30am. Honest!) the weather was beautiful and we had a very enjoyable trip.

So now it is back to work and I have lots to be getting on with in my final months here in Cambodia. I am hopefully off to a Battambang at the end of July and I’m quite excited as I haven’t been there yet and have heard that it is lovely and has a Bamboo Train, which sounds like fun.

The rains are yet to really start, we are getting the odd shower but nothing on the scale I’ve been expecting here so I feel as though I am almost waiting for it to break. On the up side the weather has seriously cooled off now, with jumpers, jeans and socks needed during the day and blankets and quilts and night which feels great!