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It takes a village to raise a child

Loretta Bellato talks with student Seng Chiang, who received a new bicycle through COCD. (Photo: Tiet Ho/Australian Red Cross)

This simple truth underpins an approach that is transforming the lives of children and their communities in Cambodia.

Sometimes simple problems require the most complex solutions. In rural Cambodia, getting children to stay in school requires a lot more than building a school and stocking it with books and teachers.

"Children drop out of school in about grade six to help their family access money; then they are engaged in the worst form of child labour," says Ung Pola, head of the Cambodian Organisation for Children and Development (COCD). "Children work in the fields using pesticides and chemical fertilisers, so their health is affected. And some become child domestic workers, which happens very often in our target area."

Mr Pola's organisation assists around 2000 of Cambodia's poorest families, through a child-centred approach that addresses numerous challenges: the cost of education, family incomes, migration and trafficking, access to clean water and sanitation, and people's ability to participate in decisions that affect their communities.

"We find that children drop out of school to help the family, so we provide a scholarship to help children enrol back at school," he explains. "We provide school supplies, monthly support allowance and food, accommodation and a bicycle as transportation.

"At the same time, we improve the living standard of the family so that after a three-year or a six-year intervention, the family will be able to support the children by themselves."

COCD supports families through various income generation activities. Recognising that health problems like diarrhoea can also keep children out of school, it partners with the Ministry of Health to dig wells in villages and offer training on basic hygiene and sanitation. It even goes a step further by encouraging whole villages to identify solutions to the problems they face.

"We work closely with commune councils. We support them to do community forums, to identify the needs and concerns of the people. We inform the whole village to come to the forum. People speak about their problems and these are discussed and prioritised.

"So we work with the children, with the family, with the community and the local authorities. That is our strategy - but the final beneficiaries are children."

With such an enormous remit and limited resources, COCD needs to identify how it can contribute to children's rights in a sustainable way. For this, Mr Pola is working with Loretta Bellato, an Australian Volunteer for International Development.

Loretta brought her partner and two young children to Cambodia, as well as her extensive experience in health service management and social work. She is now working with Mr Pola on a three-year strategic plan for COCD.

The first step is a consultation process with villagers and local services. "We're trying to find a process that fits well with what this organisation is really strong at .. a rights-based approach that incorporates community development principles and is very participatory," Loretta explains.

The Melbourne mother has found the transition to Cambodia easier than she expected. "The biggest challenge was actually taking that first plunge; making the decision to uproot myself and our whole family. But jumping off that cliff was harder than anything I've experienced here so far!"

Mr Pola and his team are highly appreciative of Loretta's input. "She helps us a lot. Already she has developed a strategic planning proposal which we have submitted to donors for financial support. Her contribution is more than what we expect.

"We would like to thank AusAID and Red Cross for providing us a really good and qualified volunteer."

The praise is mutual. "COCD walks its talk," Loretta says proudly. "They operate at a very high professional level; they're very passionate about their work and act as a strong, integrated team."

In the coming months, Loretta will play a part in almost all aspects of COCD's enormous and complex mission. She's looking forward to every moment: "If you have a desire to go and experience something totally outside the square, something that's totally exhilarating and challenging, then this is a great way to spend a year!"