Disability and Poverty in Cambodia
Located in Southeast Asia, Cambodia is a country with a troubled history. Just 50 years ago, this small nation experienced a genocide estimated to have killed a quarter of its population. Neither the country nor its people emerged unscathed. Cambodia’s high poverty rate, poor health care infrastructure and landmine-laden countryside have spelled significant consequences for Cambodia’s disabled population. In order to better understand this issue, it is essential to examine the intersection of disability and poverty in Cambodia.

Disability and Poverty in Cambodia

In general, individuals with disabilities are disproportionately likely to live in poverty. There are various reasons for this, but the most significant reason is a decreased earning capacity for this community. Another reason is the higher costs associated with achieving the same standard of living as non-disabled persons. In addition, the former problem is largely due to unequal access to education and discriminatory hiring practices. For example, practices like disability-specific expenses, medication and assistive devices.

In Cambodia, the rate of poverty among households with at least one disabled member is 18%. However, this number does not account for the additional costs associated with disability. Experts have stated that the incorporation of additional costs raises the rate to 34%. This is more than double the national rate of 13.5%. Furthermore, estimates have determined that only 44% of children with disabilities have completed primary school in Cambodia, compared to 73% of their non-disabled counterparts. This gap only widens as the level of education increases. Moreover, in 2010, the Cambodian government mandated that the workforce of public institutions should include 2% of disabled persons by 2013. However, even as late as 2016, this figure had only reached 1.3%.

Prevalence of Disability in Cambodia

Population surveys in Cambodia over the past decade have estimated the percent of disabled persons in the country to range from 2% to 9.5%. One can compare this with the rate of disability of the world at large, which the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates to be 15%. Moreover, the variance in the percentages for Cambodia is largely due to differences in how disability is defined for census and data-gathering purposes. In general, it is difficult to acquire accurate population data in developing countries. Therefore, the figures that emerge are the best estimate. Data on disability rates among Cambodian children are somewhat more reliable. A UNICEF study found that approximately 10% of children in the country have some form of disability, with speech and cognitive impairments being among the most common.

Factors Contributing to Prevalence

The conditions created by poverty and accidental landmine explosions are some of the most significant factors contributing to Cambodia’s disability rate. Poverty can be as much a determining factor of disability as a repercussion of it. World Health Organization (WHO) studies show a strong relationship between malnutrition – a common consequence of poverty – and both disability and developmental delays. Given that one in three children in Cambodia is malnourished, the country’s high rate of childhood disability is unfortunately unsurprising. Furthermore, Cambodia has made truly remarkable strides in clearing the landmines that once littered its countryside. However, accidental detonations of these buried explosives have resulted in more than 45,000 injuries and amputations in the years following 1980. Consequently, Cambodia has the highest number of amputees per capita in the world.

Obstacles to Improvement

Many of these obstacles seem to fall under one of two categories: physical infrastructure and policy enforcement. Even in urban centers, there are few physical accommodations for disabled people. Cambodia doesn’t provide accessibility measures for its most vulnerable citizens, from wheelchair ramps to auditory crosswalk signals. In the capital city of Phnom Penh, for example, there are reportedly only 15 public restrooms that are disability-friendly. Additionally, public transportation is difficult to use – if not actively dangerous – for disabled Cambodians. This is due to limited adherence to traffic laws and the poor state of public roads.

Interestingly, a lack of legislation concerning the rights of disabled Cambodians is not among the country’s problems. The government of Cambodia has put out numerous mandates and decrees that help citizens with disabilities. This covers everything from the monthly pension that citizens with disabilities are due, to penalties for businesses that don’t hire enough disabled individuals. The problem is that these laws go largely unenforced. A study found that only 4% of disabled Cambodians received their government benefits. In addition, employees of the government agencies meant to enforce certain regulations do not even know how to file a claim against violators.

Looking to the Future

Although there is certainly much progress that needs to occur, a number of NGOs and nonprofits are working to solve the issue of disability and poverty in Cambodia. The NGOs and nonprofits are working to better the living standards and lives of Cambodians with disabilities. One organization doing extraordinary work is the Phnom Penh Center for Independent Living (PPCIL).

In 2009, Cambodians with disabilities founded this NGO. This organization seeks to empower people with severe disabilities. In addition, PPCIL wants to empower people with disabilities to live independently by providing basic education and vocational training. It also assists in identifying housing units and employment opportunities with access for the disabled. The PPCIL promotes the rights of disabled Cambodians. In addition, the NGO works to provide Cambodians with the equipment, training and personal assistance they need to live independently and with dignity. The center’s most recent project is collecting donated masks and other protective wear for members of its community in response to COVID-19.

The Cambodian government recently released a National Disability Strategic Plan for 2019-2023. This plan intends to further address such issues as those covered in this article. This plan will improve livelihoods for Cambodia’s disabled community.

Gennaveve Brizendine
Photo: Flickr