A note from AusCam Freedom Project Founder, Julie Dowse:
Pre COVID 19 I was excitedly preparing for an upcoming trip to Seattle, Washington to attend a gathering of Not for Profits from around the globe who are working to end Human Trafficking. I was busily preparing a workshop I would have been presenting today 30th April on ‘Making sure what we measure is meaningful.’
Then just like that the world changed!
Seattle was identified as the epi centre of the pandemic in the USA and although numbers at that time were relatively low, none of us had any idea the global impact this pandemic would have. Needless to say the partner gathering was cancelled.
Before long, we were confronted with a health crisis on a scale never before seen by our generation – a crisis with far-reaching and profound consequences for the economy, society and the poor.
Being in Australia I was immediately comforted by the swift and precise action taken by our government. Immediate measures were put into place to counteract the mass business closures, subsequent unemployment and preparation for our hospitals to take on a surge of patients requiring medical care due to the coronavirus. Although many strategies were being implemented, you could not adequately prepare or predict the toll this would take on everyday Australians. But as a nation we have done remarkably well.
Personally, the impact on my own life has been very minimal, however as the founder of an International Charity working with the vulnerable in a developing Country, the impact has been huge. Everything I have worked and sacrificed for has now changed. All the work my team in Australia and Cambodia has been doing to protect and empower girls for the past 8 years now looks very different. The hundreds of girls we are working so hard to keep in school and dream of a new found hope for a brighter future can potentially be undone in the blink of an eye.
With the closures of schools in Cambodia to control COVID-19 transmission, this now places extra pressure on our girls and heightens their risks to exploitation as demands fall on them to contribute to the families’ economic situation. Further to this we are concerned that the longer term impact may see many girls not returning to school.
The communities we work with are affected by chronic multidimensional poverty and face many issues which are being worsened by the threat of COVID-19. Although the numbers of transmission of the disease have been relatively low in Cambodia, the impact on our families has been fierce through their loss of income. On the first day we launched our response strategy 85 families advised us they had lost their main source of income and had minimal food left to feed their families. Many who had young babies had no money to purchase baby formula. Within a few more days this rose to 141 families.
Our families also live in very cramped housing with many already caring for family members with existing health problems as a result of such poor and inadequate living conditions. It is already well documented that the poor rarely have access to quality and free healthcare. They are now living in fear that one positive case of coronavirus in their community could wipe out hundreds of lives.
While many of the organisations in Cambodia have followed the global stand of sending their staff to work from home and cut down the services they offer, we took a different tactic. Now more than ever we needed to put a strategy into place to protect our girls and their families. Instead of limiting our services we ramped ours up. To keep our staff safe we set up 2 teams, one would work from home the other from our centre and they would alternate weekly. For those working in the centre, they were spread out to ensure safe distancing. We isolated our Country Director to ensure he was kept safe and well to continue being able to lead our team. We ramped up our cleaning and sanitising of our office and quickly got all the necessary equipment needed to protect our staff. We allocated two staff to the role of Pandemic officers. They are responsible for keeping on top of the national and global implications of the pandemic. Utilising Telegram, a phone app, an update is sent to all staff, including me every day at 5pm. This helps us to prepare and respond to anything new.
Our response to our girls and their families was also prompt. We packaged together 165 relief food packages, health kits, phone top ups and COVID-19 education materials within a couple of days. Our centre became a new distribution point to help alleviate the immediate stress being felt.
Our all Cambodian team in the field worked tirelessly, working extra hours and collectively volunteered to forgo 20% of their salaries (something that I have so much admiration for) to ensure we had the funds to be able to meet this huge immediate need and for many this caused extra hardship. Although they all have specific roles and titles within our organisation, there was no distinction – they were just a team who rallied together to ease the burden of others. Such dedication and commitment has not gone unnoticed.
They also stepped out of their comfort zone appealing to local Cambodian businesses to join us in providing for those most vulnerable. And they were not disappointed. From a famous TV actor, to a business way up north of the country, they were able to garnish support. 1,000KGs of rice, high grade sanitiser and other health needs and extra food for our relief packages. Our landlord gave us a 25% discount on our rent and another business where we lease office equipment cut our expenses in half. It has been so incredibly heart-warming to see the support coming from in country.
Back in Australia we launched our own COVID-19 response campaign. We have been overwhelmed with the support, compassion and generosity we have received. Even though everyone is subject to some form of disruption to their own lives, it is clear to see that this pandemic has also brought us closer together.
We launched a Crisis hotline specifically for adolescent girls (& their families) to be able to reach more at risk girls and to have a dedicated number for our own AusCam communities as the hotline is staffed 24 hrs/7days. The team have been out in the communities speaking with people and handing out our hotline cards, including local government officials and other local NGO’s. The first call we received was from a distressed mother who had fled a domestic violence situation where her husband (& step father to her daughter) had attempted to rape her 15 year old daughter. Our team were able to quickly respond and provide the support this young girl and her mum needed. We envisage this Hotline remaining as one of our core services post COVID enabling us to expand our reach to keep more young girls safe.
We have also established an AusCam community facebook group where we are continuing to engage our girls through mentoring, workshops and generally a safe community for them to express how they are feeling and managing through this crisis.
As it has now been a few weeks since this all started we have settled into our new (crazy!) normal. However, we can’t get complacent. Cambodia is a fragile country with an even more fragile economy. We have no way of predicting what is next with this pandemic. I am afraid for the families we work with and what their future may look like now.. but, one thing is for sure.. With such a dedicated local team, our amazing Development Director Jessie, Our passionate Board of Directors, and our more than generous donors we are able to walk this step with them one day at a time. We continue to have hope.
I hope that this message finds you well and safe. We send you our thoughts and blessings from all the AusCam team.
We are all in this together,
AusCam Freedom Project