Blog Action Day: A volunteer’s first-hand experience of inequality in Cambodia

In 2013/14 Gwen volunteered with Project Trust in Magna Group Home, a residential home in Cambodia for young people who are HIV positive, who may not have families or whose families are unable to support them. To contribute to Oxfam’s Blog Action Day, Gwen has written about her first-hand experiences of inequality in Cambodia:

*The names of the young people in the following case studies have been changed.

‘What grades will I get in my exams?’ ‘Will I get accepted into university?’ ‘Will people like me?’ ‘What do I do next?’  These questions are common to any teenager. A teenager with HIV in Cambodia faces numerous other questions. A teenager with HIV in Cambodia is desperate for answers to questions which cannot be answered within that first term of university, which cannot be answered by an exam result sheet confirming the best or worst, which can’t be solved once that feeling of belonging begins to establish itself, or a question whose pressure can’t be relieved after a few jäger bombs. A teenager with HIV in Cambodia faces a lifetime of questions and struggles, whether it be social, physical or health threatening.

I was sent by Project Trust to Group Home on a teaching placement, which also involved being a carer, an entertainer, a role model and simply a source of comfort to children who had been dealt a very basic and tough life. I became fully immersed in both my role and life at Group Home almost immediately, as it formed the centre of both my work and home.

Gwen1

Gwen teaching in Cambodia.

My role at Group Home was to teach English language and to organize activities and outings. Every day was an eye opener in its own new and surprising way. But, what became increasingly obvious to me was the devastating effect of what a lack of a personal family environment or role model can have on children’s sense of self-worth and ambition. I was frustrated with the sheer amount of unfulfilled potential which might never be achieved due to a lack of opportunity and support, and the stigma of HIV. I witnessed the struggle of a child possessing a special talent or skill, but being forced to contain it in silence as they saw no way to express it.

Nausea and vomiting, fatigue, anemia, dizziness or headaches, insomnia, pain and nerve problems, injection site reactions. This is merely the beginning of a large list of side effects which accompany the HIV virus. On many occasions, the painful sight of a feverous Arun, unbearably hot, sweaty and exhausted, sprawled on the floor haunts my memory of Group Home. Arun wants to study Medicine at university level, which requires serious concentration, the ability to cope with a heavy workload, the capacity to work continuously for long, unforgiving hours without rest, day or night. To see such a talented and capable young girl restricted in her school attendance, forced to abandon her studies due to illness inevitable because of her HIV status is heartbreaking. The ARV medication will affect a patient’s ability to concentrate, focus and sustain a high level of consistency.  The result is that an intense and regular timetable of study will be a struggle for many of the children at Group Home.

(L to R) Name, Name, Project Trust volunteer Alison, Project Trust Head of Education Heloise and Gwen.

(L to R) Charles, Project Trust’s Cambodia Representative Imma, Project Trust volunteer Alison, Project Trust Head of Education Heloise and Gwen.

All children in Cambodia are forced to pay for the use of paper, pens, exam sheets and attendance at school: Money is, once again, a stubborn glass ceiling. The intelligent, talented kids I worked with at Group Home have the added health difficulties and stigma of HIV to contend with. With appropriate support and proper provision of education the children at Group Home could have the opportunity to explore their potential, increase their self-esteem and achieve ambitions currently placed well beyond their reach by an unfair system.

Prak can only be described as a caring, charming and dashing young lad. With support from the Magna team Prak’s life has been focused on preparations for his future outside of Group Home.  Prak doesn’t possess the grand ideas which drive Arun’s hard work, neither does he have much support outside of Magna’s support system. But through a combination of Prak’s initiative, optimism and self-belief, and support from Magna, he’s secured work as an intern with a tailor. A confidence in one’s own abilities, a confidence in one’s own importance in the community and a sense of self-worth are paramount in all walks of life, whether it be as a beautician, a doctor or a tailor. It inspires hope and motivation, allowing people to fulfill their potential.