Phnom Penh has experienced rapid urbanisation and growth in recent years, resulting in the expansion of “urban poor” communities with limited access to the normal provision of public utilities because they aren’t property owners or tenants in the traditional sense and lack resources and legal standing.
This modern urban underclass is mired in a state of poverty that is complex and multi-dimensional. They suffer from fiscal poverty but also educational and healthcare poverty due to the low quality of the publicly provided options in addition to their lack of financial resources available to seek private alternatives.
The self-reinforcing and replicating web of intergenerational poverty that exists in these communities is what motivated Inclusive Cambodia – an organisation promoting disability and gender inclusive practices – to open locations in areas of town like Koh Dach Island, Toul Sangke and Stueng Mean Chey
Founded in 2020 as a collaboration between Amara Khin, Vivaddhana Khaou and Oliver King, Inclusive Cambodia benefits over 200 people across the three impoverished communities through its projects and services.
“Our organisation brings together experts and leaders in areas like inclusive practices, mental health, therapy, rehabilitation – and professional sports,” says Khin, who serves as Inclusive Cambodia’s executive director.
“We have developed a range of services to empower disabled and disadvantaged children and their families to live with dignity and independence so that they may contribute and participate fully in their communities,” Khin tells The Post.
She says the key to inclusion and fair representation is changing the attitudes of the community members at the grassroots level while also changing policies at the government level and her organisation aims to do both.
Inclusive Cambodia’s approach is designed to lift the systemic barriers, eliminate negative attitudes and end the social exclusion of vulnerable children by Cambodian society through championing their independence and participation, she says.
In Cambodia, Khin says, the exclusion of disabled and disadvantaged young women is commonplace and even many able-bodied young girls are bound by traditional expectations that do not allow them much choice or autonomy.
“Many disabled girls are kept hidden in the home to be spared the shame of cultural stigmas so education is inaccessible to them and they are denied the opportunity to participate in their communities,” says Khin.
She continues saying that some other factors that prevent women and people with disabilities from fully participating in society are the socially prescribed and entrenched gender roles that characterise women and girls as nothing other than homemakers and care providers as well as the pervasive stigmas surrounding disabled women, in particular, that undermine their rights and limit their opportunities, capabilities and choices which seriously impedes any chances they have at empowerment.
“We will never see a fair representation of women and disabled women until we educate the communities they live in and lift up and celebrate their capacity for making contributions to Cambodian society,” says Khin.
Khin says that disabled women face significant challenges – in both the public and private spheres – in accessing healthcare, education or vocational training and employment throughout Cambodia.
Discriminatory attitudes and the Buddhist belief in “karmic debt” often serve to shame disabled women so they are kept hidden away from their communities by their families – particularly in “urban poor” and rural areas. With no visible examples to guide them the disabled young girls have few paths they can follow to better their prospects, according to Khin.
Khin points out that the global literacy rate is as low as one per cent for disabled women, according to a UNDP study, so without robust support and enough political and social will to ensure the inclusion of these women, they will remain relegated to lives of isolation and heightened risks.
Disabled women and girls effectively experience “double discrimination” – their disability coupled with their gender – which places them at higher risk of gender-based violence, sexual abuse, neglect, maltreatment and exploitation, says Khin.
Khin herself was born and raised in Phnom Penh. She finished nursing school and worked on public health projects before she started working with Inclusive Cambodia.
“Working as a nurse, I could see there were many problems and service gaps that we could focus on to make things better – whether the impact would be big or small, better is still better,” said Khin, whose egalitarian philosophy boils down to a belief that anyone who can summon up the courage to try and achieve their dreams or succeed should be given equal access to an opportunity to do attempt to do so.
Inclusive Cambodia works with impoverished families and tries to build-up their children’s capacities and abilities in things like sports, academics and their future career interests so that they become self-confident and begin to truly believe that with enough effort they can succeed and better themselves and their families.
Inclusive Cambodia is known in the Kingdom’s NGO community as an established and competent service provider, having collaborated directly with over 10 other major NGOs and civil society organisations on various projects over the years.
“We also work with multiple government ministries and with the sport governing bodies – including the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, National Olympic Committee of Cambodia and the Jiu Jitsu Federation of Cambodia,” she says.
Inclusive Cambodia also provides accessible therapy and healthcare to promote greater independence for disabled children and their families with tailored programmes involving occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and physiotherapy.
“Our education programme offers flexible and individualised lessons that help integrate disabled children into state school classrooms and give them ongoing help with keeping up with their curriculum and educational milestones,” she says.
Through participatory community engagement sessions, Inclusive Cambodia educates people about healthcare, disability prevention, public health issues and the rights of disabled persons and greater awareness of their plight so that the participants might be inspired to do more to make their own communities accessible to their disabled neighbours.
One of the core projects that Inclusive Cambodia has developed is its sport and athletics programmes that give opportunities to both disabled and able-bodied children to engage in healthy and fun physical activities that also have the thrill of competition and teamwork to get them interested and excited to join.
“Coaches use the discipline of martial arts as a means to promote inclusion and prepare at-risk and disabled youth for their daily responsibilities and reinforce their skills in critical thinking, problem solving and dealing with failure,” says Khin.
With poverty in Cambodia growing even worse in recent years due to the pandemic and the loss of livelihoods across the country their organisation has also been providing essential Covid-19 emergency relief funds and basic assistance.
Khin also emphasises that the organisation continues to be strongly committed to the principle of promoting the vitally important achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls through education.
“In 2021, we began delivering our blend of empowerment and education programmes, which are all dedicated to lifting the voices of young women and helping them serve as inspirational ambassadors as they become a vital link in the support networks of their own communities,” says Khin, adding that they intend to expand these programmes and bring more young women into them in the coming year.
“We have successfully recruited 25 new female disabled and non-disabled community youth leaders from three ‘urban poor’ communities and we have delivered all instalments of our expanded workshop series. We now consider these beneficiaries as trained ambassadors for change, with the skills and confidence to deliver gender equality workshops in their own communities,” says Khin.
She says that all therapy, rehabilitation and education services are delivered with the provision of the materials they require to thrive at home and at school.
Khin notes that because Cambodia does not offer any formalised training in disability care, occupational therapy, or speech therapy, their organisation relies on overseas experts to mentor and train the local staff in the skills necessary to serve their disabled beneficiaries.
“Despite a few challenges, we have had big successes in this area. In collaboration with Movement: Physio Fitness, we have just begun the training of our second ‘Khmer Rehabilitation Assistant’ under the guidance of occupational therapists, physiotherapists and speech and language therapists,” said Khin. “At the end of the three year training course, we fully expect to see our trainee become a competent service provider in disability care, sports programming, health and wellbeing.”
Inclusive Cambodia uses the H/Art Academy as a community centre that functions as both their head offices and as a large clinical space for the delivery of therapy, rehabilitation and sporting activities and education, while being firmly dedicated to equal opportunities, social inclusion and the promotion of good health and well-being within a safe space for all disadvantaged Cambodian children that allows them to discover their inner-strength.
H/Art Academy’s services are free of charge to its beneficiaries, but H/Art also provides services to the public for the cost of a small donation. The academy provides adult jiu jitsu, yoga and fitness classes at the hands of highly qualified instructors.
“The donations gathered during these activities are then dedicated to supporting our work and our important social programmes,” says Khin.
During the pandemic, Inclusive Cambodia continued to operate at a reduced capacity by paying careful attention to the recommendations of the Ministry of Health.
“As the situation has improved, we are able to increase our service delivery and the number of beneficiaries reached, all the while maintaining strict hygiene measures and protocols,” she says.“Most importantly, we require donations and financial assistance in order to expand our services and to keep them running sustainably.”
Those who are interested in donating to Inclusive Cambodia can find them online at: https://inclusiveorganisation.give.asia
For more information on classes, services and facilities available at the H/Art Academy, check out their Facebook: @hartacademy.kh