Imagine that children in our street were dying from diseases which could have been prevented by a simple vaccination. Imagine they were malnourished. That they dropped out of school in the first year because they had no preparation for learning. That they did not have access to a safe water supply.

We would be outraged. There would be newspaper headlines. Questions asked in parliament. TV crews covering the story round the clock. Immediate action would be demanded.

That this happens in other countries should be no less shocking, no more acceptable to us. We should be working just as hard to prevent it, wherever in the world it occurs.

This is the work of Unicef in countries like Cambodia.

A small group of us from my former employer visited Cambodia to see first-hand the difference this work makes to life in the country. My role was to take photos to publicise Unicef's work - these photos formed an exhibition and have been used in a wide range of Unicef publications, including the front cover of the 2008 Unicef diary.

Background briefing

Cambodia is a country of 14 million people, bordered by Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. Children form the majority of the population. Per-capita income is US$389.

The garment industry provides a source of exports, with the USA taking 60% of production, though Cambodia faces increasingly tough competition from China and India.

Other industries
include rice milling, fishing, wood & wood products, rubber, cement, gem mining and - increasingly - tourism. There is almost zero infrastructure in rural areas, and 75% of the population is engaged in subsistence farming.

The country
is unfortunately best known to the world for the slaughter that took place during the infamous Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. In an attempt to convert the country to an extreme Maoist agrarian society, the regime forced virtually the entire population of the capital, Phnom Penh, into the rural areas to work 15-hour days in the fields on two bowls of rice soup a day. He abolished currency and declared 1975 to be Year Zero: a new beginning.

The new beginning was anything but. In a country of less than 10 million people at the time, around two million were killed (the exact number will never be known; estimates range from 1.5 million to 3.3 million.)

Some were starved to death
, others were murdered in the infamous 'killing fields' of Choeung Ek, after which the film was named.

Many were tortured
before their execution at Tuol Sleng, the former school that became the S-21 interrogation center of the Khmer Rouge. Anyone who wasn't a peasant farmer was an enemy of the state in Pol Pot's eyes, and they were forced to confess their 'crimes' before being murdered. Of the 19,400 people sent to S-21, just seven survived.

The regime ended
when Vietnam invaded in 1979, but it was not until
1999 that the Khmer Rouge surrendered, with peaceful elections in 2003 leading to an eventual coalition government in 2004.

The challenges

Landmines are one legacy
of the conflict. There are an estimated six million unexploded landmines in Cambodia. These pose a grave danger to children - not just because they may inadvertantly wander into a mined area, but because poverty means many
attempt to salvage unexploded ordnance and sell it as valuable scrap metal.

UNICEF and its partners
destroyed 6,000 mines and 17,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance, and educated 400,000 children (both in and out of school) about avoiding landmines.

More than one third
of Cambodians live below the poverty line, struggling to survive on less than $1 a day. Poverty is especially pervasive in rural areas and among children, who constitute more than half of the country’s population.

has the highest infant and under-five mortality rates in the region, at 97 and 141 per 1,000 live births, respectively. Vaccine-preventable diseases, diarrhoea, and respiratory infections are among the leading causes of childhood death. Maternal mortality too is high, with very few women having access to a trained midwife.

affects most Cambodian children: 45 per cent show moderate or severe stunting.

Vaccination campaigns
have significantly reduced incidence of tetanus and measles. Coverage against hepatitis B was expanded nationally. Cambodia has been polio-free since 2000.

The spread of HIV/AIDS
may be coming under control, thanks to a dramatic increase in HIV counselling, testing, and education programmes focusing on prevention. Life-saving antiretroviral therapy is being provided to 10,000 people (including 1,000 children) who have AIDS.

UNICEF and its partners
built latrines, dug wells, tested drinking water for arsenic and provided water filtration systems, improving access to safe water and sanitation for thousands of families.

Education, education, education

is arguably the single most important factor in the long-term prospects of a country, facilitating both economic and social development.

Less than half of children enrolled in schools complete primary school. 14% of them complete less than a year. Of those who do make it, the need to repeat grades means that it takes on average 10 years to complete a primary school education.

One of the key solutions identified by Unicef is pre-school education, not only to help prepare children for school, but also to educate parents through their kids in things like safe sanitation. It was these projects we were visiting.

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