UNICEF began working in Cambodia in 1952 and opened its first country office in 1973, at the height of the civil war. At the time, UNICEF’s mandate was to provide humanitarian relief to children fleeing the civil war. However, UNICEF was one of many international agencies expelled from the country when the Khmer Rouge regime came to power in 1975. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died in the years following, as war and genocide gripped the nation.
UNICEF was one of the first organisations to return at the end of the war to provide emergency aid. Widespread famine during the regime left the majority of the population starved, while extremist policies resulted in the complete destruction of schools, hospitals and other basic services. UNICEF prioritised upgrading health facilities with a focus on access to clean water, providing crucial immunisations and distributing school supplies so children could continue their education.
In the mid-1980s, UNICEF evolved into a development organization, shifting its focus from emergency relief to nation building. The organisation launched a rural water supply program and expanded its immunisation program, focusing on remote areas. They also focused on building strong relationships with the government of Cambodia as they transitioned towards stability.
More than thirty years after war and genocide devastated the small South East Asian nation, Cambodia sits at a critical ‘crossroads’ of change and opportunity. Poverty has declined from nearly 50 per cent in the early 2000s, and political and social stability have resulted in relative calm.
While the lives of many have improved, inequalities have heightened. Roughly one in every two Cambodians does not have access to safe drinking water, while only one in every four have access to a toilet. There are alarming social disparities between children who live in rural and urban areas in terms of access to basic health services, education, clean water and sanitation. Persistent rural poverty remains a national dilemma.
UNICEF Cambodia is based in the capital city Phnom Penh, and has four regional offices located in Battambang, Kampong Cham, Preah Sihanouk and Siem Reap. 165 UNICEF staff members support a range of programs to improve the well being of Cambodians across the country. Current challenges affecting women and children include alleviating poverty, education for all and strengthening child rights and protection. UNICEF works closely with the Royal Government of Cambodia, as well as other state and non-state actors, to address these challenges with the goal of ensuring a just society for all children.