Cambodia: Landmines, Disability, and Social Stigma
It’s hard to get firm numbers on the percentage of Cambodia’s population which is living with disabilities. Part of the problem stems from the stigma which surrounds disability in Cambodia; people with disabilities are regarded with fear and mistrust. A simple action like trying to sell goods to stay alive becomes a challenge when other merchants in the marketplace spit on you and drive you out because you are disabled, and it’s not surprising to learn that much of Cambodia’s disabled population lives in the shadows.
Many Cambodian Buddhists (making up over 90% of the population) believe that they have a responsibility to care for and support people in need in their society, but this is tempered with the belief that disability is the result of a personal failing, either in this life or a past one. Disability is not value neutral in Cambodia, and this makes it extremely difficult to address disability issues there. Discrimination is widespread at multiple levels of Cambodian society, and this contributes to hardships for people with disabilities.
In a country where life expectancy hovers around age 52 and the adult literacy rates for men and women are remarkably skewed (60% for men, around 20% for women), people with disabilities in Cambodia are in an especially unenviable situation. Many live in extreme poverty and have difficulty accessing services because of poor infrastructure. Things like accessibility are hard to find, let alone antidiscrimination campaigns.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has a visual impairment, has spoken out about discrimination against people with disabilities in Cambodia, saying:
“Stop such words like, ‘you, blind,’ or ‘no-legged man,’ because it hurts. When I hear these words, I hurt, because I’m also a disabled person.1“
“If you see someone who is blind, crippled, or has amputations, please don’t talk about them based on their appearance.2“
According to statistics from the Cambodian government3, almost a fifth of the people with disabilities in Cambodia have amputations (Cambodia may have the highest percentage of amputees in the population in the world), 10% of disabled persons in Cambodia have visual impairments, and five percent are Deaf or hard of hearing. Other reporting categories include “permanent disfigurement” (10.9%), “others,” (16.9%), and “physical impairment (one or more limbs)” (22.1%).
One fifth of the people with disabilities in Cambodia are children. The vast majority of disabled Cambodians live in rural areas, in part because Cambodia’s population is primarily concentrated in rural areas, but also because Cambodia has a land mine problem.
A big one.
The land mine problem is perhaps most exemplified by looking at statistics on the number of amputees in Cambodia. Estimates suggest that between one in 230 and one in 300 Cambodians has one or more amputations. These amputations are primarily the consequence of encounters with land mines.
Almost half of Cambodia’s rural villages are mined. And it’s not just mines; Cambodia’s countryside is littered with unexploded ordinance and other hazards left over from decades of military conflict. People must farm to live, and this means that they must expose themselves on a regular basis to the danger of land mines.
Writing about his life, a landmine survivor wrote:
Forget about the possibility of heavy labor to earn a living like field or factory work, just to walk, or lie down to sleep or go to the bathroom is difficult or impossible for me, so how could I earn a living: there is no money to start up a business or no relatives to depend on for support. No way.4
It’s easy to read about things like this and go “well, this is awful, but what can I do?”
The answer is: A lot, actually.
Organizations in Cambodia advocating for people with disabilities include the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organisation, the Association of the Blind in Cambodia, the Cambodian War Amputees Rehabilitation Society, the National Centre of Disabled Persons, and Demine Cambodia. Non-Cambodian organizations include Action on Disability and Development and the World Rehabilitation Fund’s PACE Project.
These organizations are all focusing on empowering Cambodians with disabilities and on addressing social attitudes which contribute to the stigmatization of disability. Rather than just delivering aid, they are working to help disabled Cambodians help themselves. For example, MAG Cambodia isn’t simply demining Cambodia, it’s training amputees to disable and remove mines. These programs are thinking about long term changes which will improve conditions for people with disabilities in Cambodia.
If you don’t have money to donate, that’s ok. Many of these organizations could benefit from advocacy and awareness raising campaigns. If you’re a blogger, perhaps you’d consider profiling one of these organizations, or linking to posts like this at FWD which talk about efforts to address disability issues in the developing world? If you know people who are looking for charities to donate to, why not suggest one of these, stressing the idea that we should be contributing to organizations which promote autonomy and empowerment? And, if you have the energies to do so, please consider writing your representatives and foreign aid agencies to suggest that foreign aid be directed at organizations like these.
Cambodia isn’t the only country with a landmine/unexploded ordinance problem. Laos, Angola, Somalia, and Vietnam, among many others, have dangerous legacies as well. As time goes on, unexploded ordinance becomes increasingly unstable and more difficult to locate; two pronged efforts which focus on removing landmines, bombs, and other unexploded ordinance while also promoting the welfare of people with disabilities are critical.
It’s also worth pondering how these nations have ended up with a mine problem in the first place. The combatants in these conflicts had to get their mines from somewhere. In the case of Cambodia, these mines came from all over the world, including the former Soviet Union, the United States, China, India, Chile, and Hungary, among many others5. Numerous nations have a long history of being involved in arms dealing with little care as to where those arms end up and how they are used. Another important act of activism can be pressuring for more responsible handling and policy in regards to weapons sales.
Stop Arms to Sudan is just one example of the many organizations working to address the issue of global arms dealing. Control Arms Campaign, the Campaign Against Arms Trade, and the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade are others. Putting tighter controls on the global arms trade will help prevent genocide, acts of brutality, and landmine problems like those seen in Cambodia.
This is not an abstract or historical issue. As I write, for example, the United States is shipping arms for distribution in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States is not the only country to engage in this activity; not that long ago, US military strategists were condemning Britain for doing the same thing.
- Pich Samnang, VOA News, “Hun Sen Speaks Up for Disabled,” 2009. ↩
- People Living With Disabilities in Cambodia, “Prime Minister appeals to Cambodians to Respect Disabled,” 2008. ↩
- (PDF) Japan International Cooperation Agency Planning and Evaluation Development, “Country Profile on Disability, Kingdom of Cambodia,” (2002) ↩
- Hay Loeuth, “Letter From a Khmer Amputee.” ↩
- Cambodia: Beauty and Darkness. “Landmines in Cambodia.” ↩