People living with Disabilities (PWD) used to be given less opportunity to speak up in meetings due to either their shyness, or because the organizers seemed to forget to involve them in any activities, according to Thae Khamkhorn, a female farmer whose livelihood depends on the Sekong River. However, it is changed now, thanks to Oxfam’s Inclusion project and concerned advocacy partners.
Ms Khamkhorn made this observation of changed attitudes whilst attending a meeting about livelihood issues related to fishery and dams among community people, NGOs and local authorities in Sam Khouy commune hall in Stung Treng’s Sesan district during the visit from Oxfam and partners in November, organized by Cambodia Disabled People’s Organization (CDPO).
Ms Khamkhorn, who has a brother with one leg, saw in the meeting a representative of people living with disabilities speaking up. All the participants in the meeting encouraged them to share their opinions and issues related to their livelihoods and the impact of dams, she said.
246 persons with disabilities (115 females) live in Sesan district. Luy Ly, who lost his left leg during the Cambodian Civil War, is a chief of the Disabled People’s Organisation that partners with CDPO in Stung Treng. He said that many of people living with disabilities depend on the river for their livelihoods and continue to suffer due to lost rice production, drowned livestock, loss of fishing income, and damage to rice reserves, boats, fishing gear and houses. These disasters are the result of rapid fluctuations in the river water level.
Communities along the river are affected by the unstable river flows due to the large hydropower development along the Mekong River and people with disabilities are the most vulnerable, said Sam Sovann, executing director of Northeastern Rural Development organization (NRD).
They are not informed in advance of when to expect the release of water from the upstream hydropower projects, added Sovann.
“We are not informed on massive water releases and we rarely faced such problem before. I am afraid of that. People living with disabilities like me and others are struggling to survive on the river. I heard that a dam was built on the upstream [Sesan] river, the Yali Falls Dam in Vietnam. Maybe more dams will be built and I don’t know what is going to happen to us in the future” said Luy Ly.
“The voices and concerns of people living with disabilities who rely on the river for their livelihoods are missing in the development plans. They are losing the benefits they used to have and are not benefitting from the new projects”, said Kry Solany, team leader of My Village (MVi), a community based organization promoting the rights of indigenous people in Stung Treng province.
Solany stressed that promoting the rights of people living with disabilities should be integrated into all activities at both non-government and government level.
Because of this awareness and concerns in both MVi and NRD organisations, policies for Disability Inclusion in all aspects of their work will be approved in 2017. This will promote the rights of people living with disabilities to equally benefit from the natural resources without discrimination. To achieve this will require special provisions to facilitate PWD being able to participate and speak up in dialogues and join activities in order to advocate for access to government funding streams, said Solany.
With funding support from DFAT through Oxfam’s Mekong Regional Water Governance Program’s Inclusion Project, “the draft policy of MVi is expected to boost our existing activities and to make community people aware of the important voices from people living with disabilities, in managing their water resources,” said Solany.
One strategic success is that Hul Soeun, chief of the Boeung Char commune in Kratie’s Sambor district has incorporated the issues raised by about 20 villagers with disabilities into the commune investment plan for 2017. He expects to allocate government budget for prioritizing help for pregnant women and people with disabilities to access the health centre by a boat crossing the river, and to provide accessible services and safe places during disasters like flooding.
“Before, in Boeun Char commune we [local authorities and communities] knew about the issues of people living with disabilities but did not give it as much thought as we should. Now, the Inclusion project has helped us to hear their voices and to prioritise their issues in our commune investment plan. My thanks to NRD, Oxfam and CDPO that have come to work in this community,” said Soeun.
Disabilities inclusion project led by CDPO, provided training to NRD, MVi partners and to local authorities including village and commune leaders in all 7 target communes along the Mekong river in Kratie and Sekong river in Stung Treng, said Ty Rojanet, Program Manager of CDPO.
Rojanet explained the kinds of disabilities including various physical and mental impairments that can hamper or reduce a person’s ability to carry out his or her day to day activities. Knowing who the people living with disabilities are and making the environment welcoming to them will help the community and partners encourage more participation, she added.
“Now, I see people living with disabilities attend the meeting. They are brave. I think it is good that they can speak up with their concerns,” said Khamkhorn whose mother is Lao and her father is from the Tampuan indigenous people live along the Sekong river.
“The more voices we hear from people living with disabilities, the more chances we have to advocate for their rights to be recognized and valued by the public, and the more we can achieve together,” said Rojanet.