Frontlines Online Edition
Global Health/Iraq
April/May 2011

Out of Hardship, a Health Advocate Is Born

Theary Chan (in large hat) participates in a USAID project to improve access to safe drinking water among poor communities. Theary Chan (in large hat) participates in a USAID project to improve access to safe drinking water among poor floating communities in Cambodia. SOK KATA, RACHA

I belong to a generation that has witnessed political upheavals, genocide, civil war, drought, and poverty. After the Khmer Rouge regime, when an estimated 1.5 million Cambodians were killed or died of starvation, my family and I fled the country, joining thousands of others to become refugees in the Thai-Cambodian border camps.

I spent 12 years in the border camps, surrounded by barbed wire and soldiers. During that time, we always kept our belongings packed in a small bag, ready to run if the camp was attacked. Sometimes we moved five times within a year to escape fighting and insecurity.

Our homes and hospitals in the refugee camp were built from bamboo and thatch, and we lacked water, electricity, and land. At night, this largest city of Cambodian people was plunged into darkness and fear. Our common goal was survival.

It was in the camps where I developed a passion to work for the empowerment of women. I received my initial health training in the border camps, spending more than a decade of my life working in the maternity ward of a makeshift hospital. I eventually became the chief midwife, working with a team of 25 Cambodian midwives.

We found great satisfaction in providing quality care and kindness to desperately poor and stressed women. At that time, our salary was a bag of rice and a few canned fish, but we felt rich in capacity development, friendship, and achievements.

I recall assisting a woman with a prolonged and complicated labor. When indiscriminate shelling wrecked the roof of the hospital, only the woman, her family, and I remained. The expatriate health staff had been evacuated by the United Nations security group and other health staff ran for their lives. Unmindful of the danger, I successfully assisted the woman to safely deliver a healthy baby, and stayed with her until her condition improved.

After the experience I gained in the maternity ward at the Thai-Cambodian refugee camp, I worked for two years as a resident midwife at Hospital Jean-Verdier and Hospital General de Romans, in France, and completed a Masters of Public Health in Holland. Afterwards, I spent 20 years working with international organizations. Then I felt ready for a new challenge in my life.

This led me to apply to the Reproductive and Child Health Alliance (RACHA) in 2003, where I was offered the post of executive director. When I started, RACHA was in the process of becoming a local NGO. In 2004, RACHA began to receive funding from USAID.

New Approaches to Save Lives

My country currently has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the region.

Through generous funding from the American people via USAID, RACHA works in collaboration with government counterparts, especially the Ministry of Health, and other development partners, to reduce maternal, newborn, and children-under-5 mortality in Cambodia. RACHA’s strategy is to improve the lives of individuals in Cambodia by making services for reproductive, newborn and child health, infectious diseases, and HIV/AIDS safe, available, accessible, and sustainable.

RACHA also assists the government to implement the “Health Sector Support Project, Fast Tract Initiative Road Map” in five provinces. That includes: training health ministry workers; strengthening the links between health facilities and communities; mobilizing communities to improve referral systems; and increasing the number of community-based transportation systems to improve access to comprehensive emergency obstetric and newborn care.

RACHA constantly seeks new approaches and technology that will improve the lives of the communities it serves. One example: the conversion of lake water into safe drinking water through a biotech filtration system that supports thousands of poor communities living on and around the Tonle Sap Lake.

Cambodian people today wish to join the rest of the world in marching towards peace, progress, and prosperity. RACHA will do its best to use USAID’s resources effectively to reach more beneficiaries in remote areas, and to pursue innovative interventions to contribute to the achievement of the Cambodian Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

Theary Chan is the executive director of Reproductive and Child Health Alliance (RACHA), a USAID/Cambodia local implementer.