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Universal healthcare is not universal

Phnom Penh is a bustling metropolis with all the crowding, pollution and crime that goes with such. Ramble off the main thoroughfares, you'll find wonderful oases in the form of pagodas, restaurants or spas in tranquil landscaped settings but the city also has a dark side. The poverty is prevalent everywhere you go with amputees reaching their hands out, women pushing babies in your face or children begging for spare change. An underlying class system exists here where the average Khmer is treated like a fifth class citizen whereas the rich and the foreigners are swooned over. It's distressing to watch.

During a particularly torrential downpour while someone was trying to troubleshoot my phone, I gestured for my moto driver to take a seat next to me but he would not step into the store. He knew his place and that he was as welcome as a cockroach seeking shelter from the rain. Quite in contrast to cities like Paris where it's the foreigners who are unashamedly put in their place (the preference being on the guillotine for abuses of their beloved Français).

Segregation of any form is upsetting but especially so when the affected members of the population take it in stride not wishing to create waves by drawing attention to the injustice. Fighting for their basic human rights is a huge challenge when the victims are afraid to stand up for themselves, although I also know that there can be severe repercussions if they do. It's a struggle for those affected and demands great courage to speak out.

Exemplifying such courage is Mu Sochua, an elected Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) opposition member of the Cambodian parliament and mother of three. Fighting for better access to economic opportunities, better implementation for social programs and outlets for greater political participation, a New York Times article could not have better characterized her than when they featured her in their article titled Crusader Rowing Upstream in Cambodia.

Almost entirely excluded from government-controlled newspapers and television, she crosses the country by whichever means possible to promote her ideas, including advancing women’s issues in this patriarchic society. During her time as minister of women’s affairs, she tirelessly campaigned against child abuse, marital rape, violence against women, human trafficking and the exploitation of female workers. But as importantly, she wants to educate the Khmer that they have a voice and if they see something wrong, they can stand up and speak about it.

"Let no Cambodian children go to bed hungry anymore. Let no Cambodian woman be sold anymore. We must walk tall despite being people bent from the trauma of the Khmer Rouge, which is still a part of us. Let us not let our leaders and the world-community use this trauma to give us justice by the teaspoon. Let there be real justice."

Cambodia remains a conservative, corrupt and stubbornly male-dominated society where deep-seated prejudices, class barriers and a fragile economy imprisons the majority of its citizens. Although GDP has grown, poverty levels remain little changed revealing the disparity between economic growth and equitably-distributed development. Economic development favours the urban areas while rural areas, where over 90% of the population live, remain economically stagnant.

My sincere hope is that by the efforts of politicians such as Mu Sochua, policies are developed and implemented in Cambodia to promote long term development where women are valued as human beings and as equal partners, and where every citizen enjoys their basic rights to healthcare, education, liberty and peace. No longer do I wish to hear the heartbreaking story of a young girl being removed from an orphanage by her mother only to be sold and shipped to Thailand, or wonder if a young orphan will die as he needs a heart valve replacement and has no-one who cares about him.

These stories eat away at me and motivate me even more to contribute to a world where I have not had to lay on the road for three hours (as my friend's daughter did this week) after a motorcycle crash as there are no ambulances. Yesterday, I winced as my moto driver revealed his infected leg as he has no money to have it examined after a traffic accident. Accompanying him to the local clinic where he was set up with a tetanus shot and some medication, I knew that my assistance was a drop in the ocean but for Samnang, it was the difference between being able to work or not.

Photos courtesy of


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