Unusual leader heads urban squatter community
“I will help my community to be more closely protected from forced eviction,” resolves Tuch Pao. She is a 60 year old woman from the squatter community of Rolus Choeung Ek in Phnom Penh who has been trained by Diakonia to negotiate with the authorities.
Over a period of 7 years, due to targeted training and capacity building by Diakonia’s partner organisationSamakhumTeangTnout, Tuch Pao has grown to become an active representative of her informal village of 60 families. This is unexpected in Cambodia’s traditional culture where women are generally expected to defer to male leaders.
As the first point of contact for her squatter village, Tuch Pao regularly coordinates on vital concerns such as improving local housing, health, and particularly land rights.
The squatters are at risk of eviction
The squatter community borders a sewage canal 20 kilometres from the centre of Phnom Penh and is surrounded by fumes, flies and garbage. While Rolus Choeung Ek has been continuously occupied since the 1990s, it remains an unauthorised habitation that is severely at risk for eviction. Due to the unrecognised nature of the area, it is used as a dump by nearby communities and the city’s trash collectors. Those who live there often have chosen it as a residence of last resort. It’s not very far from the frequently visited Choeung Ek ‘Killing Fields’ historical tourist site - but a world away.
Have no clear options to relocate
None of the Rolus Choeung Ek community members have official land titles, either. Due to extreme poverty, they have no clear options to relocate. They are reluctant to engage with local authorities and are conscious of the risk of eviction. They are surrounded by other communities that do hold land titles, which would see their value go up if the nearby squatters were evicted. Like other unofficial communities, Rolus Choeung Ek seek to improve their living conditions, strengthen their livelihoods, and attain legitimacy for their homes.
The family struggles to secure their meals
Tuch Pao’s family of five came to live near the canal in 2007, when there was an influx of poor residents from other areas. They live in a small, dilapidated house of wood and thatch near the canal. Her husband ekes out a living as a trash collector while she takes care of their extended family. Three sons have moved away, and her daughter contributes to the family as a garment worker. Tuch Pao looks after her daughter’s blind husband and two children. Like many others in their community, the family is malnourished and struggle to secure three meals a day and endure persistent health challenges from the polluted environment.
Took interest in her rights
Most in the canal area do not have stable jobs, access to electricity, running water or health care. Their preferred outcome is on-site improvements, improvement of livelihood, as well as recognition by municipal authorities of their rights to residency.
When Sahmakum Teang Tnaut engaged with the Rolus Choeung Ek squatters in 2010, and informed about land law, housing rights, land registration, and computer literacy, Tuch Pao began to take an interest in her rights as she learned more about the challenges facing her community, and resources to address them. The villagers, with STT’s help, developed a community-based organisation to help with their needs.
Her engagement has increased
Over the years Tuch Pao’s knowledge and engagement has increased to the point where she now proudly takes a leadership role on the committee of Rolus Choeung Ek’s community-based organisation. “My knowledge is recognised,” she proudly notes “and I am happy to be one of the community leaders.”
Story told to Pyanet Lim, programme officer in Cambodia.