World Children’s Day: A chance to reimagine Cambodia

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Children study around the radio which provides educational support during the closure of their school amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Paor Kekchong village, in Rattanakkiri province’s Borkeo district. UNICEF Cambodia/Antoine Raab

November 20th is World Children’s Day, a day when nations turn the spotlight onto children, recognise the challenges they face, and ensure their voices aren’t just taken into account but are amplified.

This year, the day falls against a troubling backdrop. Much of the remarkable progress Cambodia has made in recent decades – more children in school, lower child mortality, and increased access to clean water and nutrition – are endangered by Covid-19.

Response efforts began almost as soon as the virus reached Cambodia’s shores, but recovery plans will stretchlong into the future. We must place children at the heart of this recovery and ensure they are fully involved in its development as we reimagine tomorrow’s world. After all, they will live in this new world longer than anyone, and deserve one which allows them to fulfill their potential.

To this end, last week I was delighted to host an online meeting with 27 young Cambodians from different youth organisations, held to ensure UNICEF’s efforts in the coming months and years are aligned with their real concerns and hopes. Our group talked via Zoom, and the vibrant energy in the room demonstrated how powerful technology is in connecting children and encouraging collaboration. Yet, the participants pointed out that many children living in Cambodia’s poorest and most remote regions don’t have access to the internet and all its benefits. This harmed their education this year, when many lessons moved online. It is a digital divide we all agreed must be bridged.

This very point was hammered home when we discussed the importance of improved health. One young woman called Boramey said she felt families needed better information on good nutrition. She said information should be disseminated online, then added “we would need to focus even more on people living in areas with limited access to the internet”.

Access is also a serious concern when it comes to a potential Covid-19 vaccine, and some expressed concern about whether it would be made available to lower-income countries like Cambodia. Seam said:“Vaccines should be for humanity, not used as a political tool or for gain.”

Turning from physical to mental health, some participants worried about how confinement at home during the pandemic had increased stress and the negative impact of social media on young people’s wellbeing. Contrary to the stereotype that young people can’t live without a constant diet of Tik Tok andInstagram, Sovannarong said: “I try to distance myself from social media when I feel overwhelmed.” Others hoped to end taboos around mental health. Aliza said, “I really hope to see a day when no-one is afraid to ask for help and be given help.”

One of the most passionate moments in the discussion came when we talked about those whose futures had been harmed by the pandemic. Neary told of a friend who couldn’t return to school when it re-opened as her family had come to rely on the money she was earning by working. “She became so depressed, and really wanted to go back,” Neary reported. The young people agreed that a recovery which doesn’t address such inequalities would be incomplete, a missed opportunity.

It was gratifyingto realise that most of the concerns expressed by children and young peopleare included in the global six-point-plan for children that UNICEF and partners such as the ChildFund Alliance, Plan International, Save the Children, SOS Children’s Villages and World Vision have developed together. The plan also addresses climate change, another area of concern young Cambodians have raised with us passionately and frequently, as well as the need to increase support to children during conflict or natural disasters. This plan will be presented to the UN’s upcoming General Assembly Special Session on Covid-19 in December to mobilise the member states around the issues that matter most to those most affected.

I left the discussion full of hope, galvanised by the energy and ideas of these young people. There are other reasons for optimism. Many of the issues raised are already being addressed by the Cambodian government, as shown by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport’s work on tackling the digital divide. More broadly, the government’s swift response throughout the pandemic has kept Cambodiaas one of the few countries with zero deaths. It also achieved a social protection milestone by introducing its Covid-19 Cash Transfer Programme for all its most vulnerable citizens. These are firm foundations for future progress.

The idea which stayed with me longest was expressed by Sovannarong. He said: “While we’re waiting for the pandemic to be over, we shouldn’t just sit around, we can do more, learn new things, get more active.” A girl replied that she has already set up her own organisation to improve education. These young people don’t just have the right ideas, they have the right actions.

The conversation won’t end there. Over the coming weeks UNICEF will use our website and social media channels to continue it, providing a platform for more young people to speak out. All Cambodians are invited to contribute. Join us at https://www.unicef.org/cambodia/. Let’s use this Children’s Day to reimagine a better world, together.

Foroogh Foyouzat is UNICEF Cambodia Representative