01 March 2012 ~ 0 Comments

(Pari Project Guest Post) From grassroots NGO to lawmaker

This is a guest post by Allie Hoffman of The Pari Project about the impact one NGO has had, and lessons that can be drawn .

In 2008, acid attacks in Cambodia arrived at a tipping point, with daily news coverage, new cases, and gory photos dominating the public discourse. What caused the increase? Beginning in May 2008, one high profile case dominated the national news and captivated the country. Chea Ratha, a Military Police Brigadier General, allegedly paid 5 of her bodyguards a ‘bonus’ to throw acid on the auntie of her lesbian lover, radio personality Sok Lyda. Many believe that Ratha ordered the attack after Lyda called off their sexual relationship.

Ya Soknim was left with severe scaring on her face and torso, and ultimately passed away last year.

The coverage started a cascade of similar attacks and by the end of 2009, there were approximately 40 new cases reported. An NGO Pari now works with was created to support the victims of these attacks: Cambodia Acid Survivors Charity (CASC).

Founded in 2006 by the team from Children’s Surgical Center, CASC was intended to provide rehabilitative and social support to the small number of acid burn patients the hospital treated in its burn unit.

Research compiled by LICADHO in 2003 reported 44 acid attacks in a 3-year period, beginning in 2000. By 2010, CASC was recording 40 new cases per year, with approximately 20 attacks. In some instances, children were not only innocent bystanders, but collateral.

From the start, CASC was in a unique position to respond to these cases. After being treated at a Burn Unit at CSC, victims were taken to recover at CASC. There, they had access to physiotherapy plus therapeutic support.

By late 2009, a movement had begun to stop the impunity of high-ranking perpetrators. Never serving time and currently wanted by Interpol, Ratha’s victims are left to appeal for refugee status, afraid for their safety at the hands of her bodyguards. CASC, via its Program Manager Ziad Samman, was soon called upon to create systemic change.

CASC teamed up with LICADHO and CCHR, and began to gently lobby the appropriate government representatives. They started with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs believing that if they weren’t going to care, then who would? Leveraging existing contacts to get key meetings, the management team soon had the ears of many government officials’ wives.

Today the law is nearly ratified, having been approved by the King. CASC continues to provide ongoing support to relevant government officials, at times providing advice and counsel to ministers’ dealing with the rubber industry lobby, or the acid wholesalers and distributors.

On its own, the story of a small grassroots NGO advocating for an issue would not be remarkable. Yet CASC is a tremendous case study: without any budget for lobbying, advocacy, awareness, marketing or development, CASC is working to dramatically change national policy, has helped create a function within the legal system to prosecute perpetrators, and thus provided the deterrent we all hope is needed to prevent a continued increase of these attacks in Cambodia.

Up next? Ziad says public perception needs to shift away from the victims, and the inherent presumption it was their fault. He wants Cambodians to understand 48% of all victims are actually male, and not everyone is burned because they were on the wrong side of a love triangle.

To achieve this goal, he’s still focused on advocacy at the grassroots level: CASC victims going into district health centers and meeting with village leaders to tell their stories. He’s also aiming to train the next generation of Cambodian journalists to report the issue from a different lens in hopes of reshaping attitudes.

I think more is needed. I think Cambodia is ready for a visually confronting mass media campaign that presents the reality of acid burns, and makes the consequences known. I think Cambodian society is ready for a campaign that challenges victim culpability, and explores deeper issues related to education and empathy.

What is the lesson that Ziad taught me? That the people I met are not victims, they are survivors. Today they stand as evidence of the changes Cambodian society must undergo – the value it must start to place on all its citizens – before it can advance in its freedoms. At the same time, the adoption of the acid law is evidence of the progress it is already making, and its good intentions. For the future of this issue, only time will tell. In the meantime, Cambodia is lucky to have Ziad and CASC on its side.


This is a guest post by Allie Hoffman of The Parivartan Project. Pari is a social enterprise that provides marketing and organizational development services to grassroots development organizations that ‘believe in better’. To learn more: www.thepariproject.com