Thursday, January 15, 2009

Why It Is so Hard to Break the Poverty Cycle

I mainly used to comment on economic and political events in Cambodia. To illustrate life in Cambodia to the outsider, however, nothing shows this better than personal experiences.

This outwardly honest young man, Ohm Hen’s grandson from the previous post, had moved with his young wife into Ohm Hen’s little house, mainly to take care of her – a very laudable effort on his part. Another reason was that he wanted to find a job in Phnom Penh. His wife, 3 months pregnant, was working in a garment factory. So, at least they had some money. Things seemed to work out for them.

Of course, as he used to live there with his grandma before he knows most of the neighbors already and consequently went to hang out with them. Obviously he did this so much that his wife felt neglected and became outright jealous about this. He is 21, and she is 20. There were no other women or even alcohol involved. This all took place over a period of maybe one month. To make a long story short, the young wife got so distraught that she tried to commit suicide by swallowing 25 iron supplement tablets her doctor had given her to help her and her unborn baby during her pregnancy.

When the young man came home that one night he found his wife on her bed clearly not feeling well. On pressuring her it all came out. They live about 20 km from the center of Phnom Penh. He hired a tuk-tuk and rushed her to the Calamette hospital. As I mentioned in the other post they won’t treat anybody until they have paid. Sroik, the young man, didn’t have any money so he sped to his young aunt, herself a recent mother, and borrowed $40 from her so he could pay the hospital. They pumped the wife’s stomach and gave her IV infusions. She needed to stay hospitalized overnight. The next day the doctors said she was ready to go home. She should just take it easy and rest for a few days. No food for the first day. So far so good.

His aunt Pisey and her husband were very sympathetic and said Chanda, the wife, ought to see another doctor to check on her. One of their acquaintances was a doctor; so they took her to his office. That doctor kept her for 2 more days and then released her.

Needless to say, that Chanda didn’t go to work during that time, and it is not sure whether she will still have that job when she goes back to work. We know that business is very slow these days in all sectors in Cambodia.

Sroik hadn’t found a steady job either. He helps out painting the new school in the district. But it’s no long-term job. Both are in debt to their aunt and uncle for $40 and to the doctor for another $45. This is not a whole lot in the West, but for these people who don’t have any money at all it seems like an insurmountable debt. Normally, they would make about $100 together, but without job, what could they do, and how are they going to pay it back?

Do these young people have any prospect of a better life? They are completely uneducated, barely able to read and write. They are poor. But they are young. One can’t forget that even poor people have a sexual drive. They started dating, to use the Western term, and obviously finally had sex together. After a while, the girl got pregnant. So they got married, whether voluntarily or because Sroik was threatened with whatever Chanda would think up, we don’t know. Rumors fly in these cases. They profess love for each other, but who really knows. I doubt that in their confusion they know it themselves. It goes without saying that they had no money for a wedding ceremony or party. So his mother borrowed $500 at her village for the wedding.

And now this. If this story takes its almost predictable course, as in millions of other cases, they would just subsist on whatever they could scrounge together. But they would most likely have more babies, which would grow up malnourished and also without access to a better education, making them day laborers, or in the worst case, even beggars - all because the young parents didn’t think things through. Why didn’t they use contraceptives? They are readily available. The government runs clinics dispensing free IUDs for women and condom use is propagated throughout, including TV commercials. If worst comes to worst, the young man will be fed up with this dire life after a few years, and just take a hike, like so many other young and older man are wont to do.

Footnote: This is not to slap myself on the back, but just to forestall many a thought in this direction a reader might have. Yes, my wife and I will intervene and see what we can do for these people and how we can help them. One thing is for sure, right after the baby is born we will take them to a family planning center.

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