Experts Examine Social Work Issues in Cambodia

The International Social Work Conference on Children and Youth was held in Phnom Penh Monday and Tuesday, where the latest research was presented on improving the wellbeing of children in developing nations, highlighting some of the problems facing Cambodia’s underfunded social welfare services.

A social worker’s job is to identify and support children and families most at risk of exploitation and abuse. Yet in Cambodia—where sexual abuse, human trafficking and child exploitation are ubiquitous and where the mental health symptoms caused by Cambodia’s traumatic past are left largely untreated—social workers are scarce.

According to a 2009 Unicef report, there are just two social workers for every 25,000 people, most of whom lack experience and qualifications. As a result, the Cambodian government’s institutionalized child protection system is skeletal at best and its ability to identify the most vulnerable is lacking.

Tracy Harachi, program director of the Royal University of Phnom Penh and University of Washington’s School of Social Work Partnership, which helped organize the conference and established Cambodia’s first bachelor’s degree in social work, hopes that the program will finally help establish a clear set of standards for professional social work.

“It’s wonderful to see the number of participants from other countries here discussing some of the similar challenges the social service sector has faced, such as how to establish consistency in new university courses,” she said on the sidelines of the conference.

Yet the government’s limited understanding of the profession is an obstacle to the development of the sector as a whole.

For example, provincial departments of social affairs are responsible for appointing social workers, yet no criteria are available and it is not even recognized as a job description within the civil service.

“Social workers should not just operate within the department of social affairs, they need to be integrated across various government departments such as health and education…but [the government] hasn’t yet understood that social work needs to interact in this way,” Ms. Harachi said.

“I have been coming [since] 1999 and there has been change but it’s been slow going, though I hope and believe that forward progress will continue,” Ms. Harachi added.

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