Breaking the cycle

This month local government will take the reins on a plan to curb Cambodia’s drinking problem. Stakeholders have high hopes this will then empower communities to take steps to address a range of the country’s social issues.

This month local government will take the reins on a plan to curb Cambodia’s drinking problem. Stakeholders have high hopes this will then empower communities to take steps to address a range of the country’s social issues.

PEOU Bunthoeurn woke up with a hangover and decided to quit drinking. He figured feeling so sick couldn’t be good for his health and he didn’t want to worry his family. And unlike the countless number of hungover people who make similar promises only to break them at the first opportunity, he hasn’t had an alcoholic drink since that day five years ago. Yet Mr Bunthoeurn, who is the head of Kampong Speu’s provincial capacity development office, has continued to worry about the destructive impacts of alcohol on his community. Generally, these were far worse than a hangover.

A report released by The Asia Foundation in June this year showed his concerns were justified. On average Cambodian men were drinking six times as much alcohol as women. Along with a variety of negative consequences, this was putting women at greater risk of domestic violence. In fact, it was found that one in five Cambodian women who had been in a relationship had experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner. And due to the limited regulation of the alcohol industry in Cambodia, there was often little Mr Bunthoeurn could do to reduce the problem.

But following a training session in Battambang earlier this month, Mr Bunthoeurn has joined a number of local government officials working to spread awareness about the problems that stem from alcohol abuse in communities.

Since October last year, the National Committee for Sub-National Democratic Development Secretariat (NCDDS) has worked with The Asia Foundation to create a technical document on commune alcohol notification systems (CANS). The document aimed to support the development of community-based interventions that reduce alcohol abuse, through promoting law reform and the regulation of alcohol at the commune level. The CANS is a commune level by-law, which sets limits on the sale, consumption, and advertising of alcohol to reduce abuse and prevent intimate partner violence. Communes will then be encouraged to adopt and enforce this by-law.  But first, commune councils will be advised to consult extensively with their communities.

NCDDS official Men Virakyouth said the document would suggest commune councils form a working group to discuss the issue widely with local people. This would lead to community-driven ideas, which would therefore be likely to succeed.

The process that went in to creating this document also provided an example of how the decentralization of government, the key mandate for NCDDS, was working to provide better outcomes for local communities.

“In the process of developing this document, communes are talking directly to village people, and supporting what they want to do,” Mr Virakyouth said.

“All people support and participate. It is very good for decentralization.”

The document will also form part of a framework being developed to ensure rates of domestic violence and intimate partner violence decline, even after a program started in 2014 by The Asia Foundation ends this month. During the past three years the program raised awareness through public forums, door knocking campaigns and posters about the relationship between this type of violence and alcohol abuse. Counsellors and community based network groups were set up to help. One of the most effective ways of bringing positive change was through monks who raised the issue during fortnightly pagoda ceremonies. But after August, the fight against alcohol abuse and domestic violence will fall to commune councils. They will therefore need to integrate these programs into their commune investment plans and set out funding in their budgets. This will require the communes to spend less on infrastructure, typically their top priority. But The Asia Foundation’s program advisor Mao Syheap is confident the positive impacts shown during the past three years will see the money allocated.

“Children are also negatively affected by alcohol fueled violence. They can’t go to school, they need to work because the husband does nothing but drink. And the family can’t afford to send them to school,” he said.

“But when (the husband) stops drinking they can become a good role model. They start working. Some former alcohol abusers even get involved in peer to peer training.”

“Now (the commune councils) are aware of the importance of these programs, they will be motivated (to budget social service funding).”

It was also hoped that after commune council’s created and enforced bylaws banning the sale of alcohol to minors, they would then begin to create more bylaws without support from other agencies. This would further support the NCDDS’s aim to make government in Cambodia less centralized, and more in touch with the needs of local people.

Mr Bunthoeurn, the head of Kampong Speu’s provincial capacity development office who no longer drinks alcohol, said he would encourage the commune council’s to prioritize the social service budget. Following the training this month, he said he would help conduct commune training, work with communities and distribute education about the issue.

“I can share with the community the negative effects of alcohol I have seen from my own experience,” he said.

Training for commune councillors will continue later this month.

“Instead of beer, now I am only drinking coffee or tea. I can share how not drinking alcohol has changed me.”

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