Cambodia has a tragic contemporary history. Following a bloody civil war, the genocidal Khmer Rouge (KR) regime under the infamous Pol Pot held power from 1975 to 1979.
During this period, millions of Cambodians were slaughtered or left to starve. Intellectuals and professionals were preferentially targeted and murdered. Estimates of the numbers killed through execution, forced labour and starvation range from 1.7 to 3 million.
Following the ousting of the Khmer Rouge more carnage followed, albeit on a lesser scale, for almost twenty years. Although the KR had been ousted from power they continued to run bloody operations from strongholds in the northwest corner of Cambodia.
Thus it was that parts of Cambodia remained at civil war until as late as 1998 when the KR were finally defeated.
Battambang and Pailin Provinces were an epicentre of this long, protracted battle and people living in the western-most districts were profoundly affected.
Despite efforts by the international community and a return to a relatively stable government, the majority of Cambodians still live in abject poverty.
Family Support Program
In 1997 the International Organisation for Migration established a project titled The Post-Conflict Family Support Program (FSP) in the western districts of Battambang province.
The goal of the project was to address the psychological and social problems of children resulting from the ongoing conflict between the Khmer Rouge and government forces. It began as a pilot project in Rattanak Mondul District of Battambang province.
Baseline studies of the population had, as expected, identified major problems including dysfunctional, poverty-ridden families with no means of support, voids in family structure because of the death of one or both parents, where elder siblings were totally responsible for the remnant of a family, psychologically damaged children, truancy, violence and sexual exploitation and abuse of women and children.
The FSP program operated with a small core staff supported by teachers recruited in local government schools and with the cooperation of community members. The focus of the program was schools. Children in difficulty were identified and the family approached in an effort to provide support in a tailored fashion, depending on the circumstances.
During 1997 and 1998 the program was established in one school, but soon extended to other schools. As the program was established in new schools it continued to provide residual support in established schools through teachers who maintained contact with project staff for assistance as required.
The program provided support to the most needy school children and their families through collaboration with teaching staff and community members. Activities included counselling of traumatized children, helping families to start modest income generating initiatives, such as rice growing, chicken raising and vegetable growing, providing used clothing to children who had none, and giving children basic school materials such as pencils and paper.
The program also helped out with low-cost community initiatives such as installing a water supply for some schools, distributing mosquito nets, building simple houses and crop rice-growing.
In the late nineties, even with the final defeat of the Khmer Rouge, it was apparent that the basic and underlying problems the program was seeking to address were compounded by the abject poverty in the area. The Khmer Rouge was gone, leaving a legacy of suffering and misery. The problems the program was seeking to alleviate were still there.
Funding for the program was modest and came from a variety of sources. The governments of Japan and Canada provided funding from 2002 until 2007. Unfortunately, both governments shifted funding priorities in mid-2007 and stopped their assistance to the program.
Over a ten-year period, the FSP was a lifeline for many of the neediest children and their families in an often over-looked corner of Cambodia. Suspension of the program severed this lifeline.
Through the formation of a modestly budgeted non-governmental organisation, Cambodian Family Support was able to continue and expand this work with a broader coverage. Because of the success and relatively long life of the FSP program, the infrastructure, the core of trained staff, the community awareness and enthusiasm and close ties established with relevant government agencies and NGOs, a re-establishment of operations was relatively simple.
The Australian Connection
Dr. Vincent Keane*, an Australian Doctor with extensive experience working with the United Nations, was Chief of Mission, International Organisation for Migration in Cambodia from 2002-2006.
One of the projects at the time was the Family Support Project managed by Dr. Samnang Eng. When funding for that project dried up in 2007 and project activities ceased, Dr. Samnang contacted Dr. Keane to ask assistance to restart the project.
With help from Rotary Club of Perth and generous donations from friends, the project was able to be rebooted. Cambodia Family Support Cambodia and Cambodia Family Support Australia were registered as non-profit organisations in 2008.
*Dr. Vincent Keane is a graduate of the University of Western Australia and holds postgraduate qualifications in public health and tropical medicine. He worked in international health and development for 38 years in over 40 countries.