The vaccinations are part of a larger social protection programme being implemented to provide persons with disabilities support and services.
Chap Pem, 72, is having a busy morning, helping to organise a COVID-19 vaccination event in his local community designed specifically for persons with disabilities. As Deputy Chief of Prek Ta Meak Commune Council in Kandal Province, and the main local focal point for persons with disabilities, he has personally spoken to and registered each of them.
"It started with identifying people with disabilities, that's so important…that's how we ensure they get support from the Government and from NGOs," he said, noting the process that led to this milestone moment. "Lots of people have been very scared and worried, so most of them really wanted to get vaccinated.”
In fact, the vaccination drive is just the most recent evidence of the development of a better social protection system for persons with disabilities in Cambodia.
It is a priority set by the Royal Government of Cambodia and supported at every step by UNICEF and other partners.
In its 2017 "National Social Protection Policy Framework," the Government recognised that, "people with disabilities, especially those living in poverty, tend to be discriminated against and face problems… problems that prevent them from receiving sufficient healthcare, education and vocational training services." One of those problems was that "mechanisms to identify people with disabilities are still inconsistent, preventing some people from benefiting from the policies of the Royal Government and the involved development partners."
Determined to improve the situation, in 2018 the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSVY) began working with UNICEF on guidelines for identifying persons with disabilities in Cambodia. UNICEF helped MoSVY develop social and rights-based identification tools, and trained stakeholders in eight provinces to collect data. During 2020, UNICEF helped develop a Management Information System, began training staff, and supported MoSVY as it identified and registered persons with disabilities, a crucial step towards enabling future provision of social protection programmes such as health protection, employment and other forms of social care.
When news emerged of the COVID vaccines and the Government agreed that persons with disabilities should be among the priority groups, it was clear that this would be the new systems' first major test. Yeap Malyno of the Department of Welfare for Persons with Disabilities (WPD) watches the morning's vaccinations with pride and says that the earlier work on identification was crucial.
"How else could we possibly have got the information quickly, or made sure it was accurate? Having the system in place already was key,” he said.
Adding that "UNICEF has been a very important partner," not just in the registration and identification but in capacity building, guidance and creating communication materials to support the vaccinations.
"My Department has supported local authorities in preparing for these vaccinations, making sure they follow the national standards for accessibility. UNICEF has helped fund this support, and provided very important content for social media, radio and posters so that people with disabilities know about the vaccine."
The impact on individuals is certainly life-changing.
"I just stayed home while COVID was happening," said Meng Srun, a 30-year-old man living with a disability that affects his mobility and health. "I couldn't take the risk of being outside. So, I have a very happy heart today, getting vaccinated."
"We're proud to be playing a part in making sure persons with disabilities in Cambodia get the support they deserve, not just with these vaccines but into the future," says Erna Ribar, UNICEF Cambodia's Chief of Social Protection, taking a break from talking to community workers at the vaccination drive. "Proper identification and registration is the foundation on which a strong social protection system can be built. By the end of the year we plan to have rolled out identification in every province. This is an important step forwards for the realisation and protection of disability rights in Cambodia."
"Having this identification system in place will certainly help future programmes," agrees Mr. Malyno. "For example, we know most persons with disabilities in Cambodia are unemployed, so now we can identify them we can target them with employment programmes. But first we must vaccinate. Disabled people need more economic and social opportunities, and vaccines will help us get there."
Mr. Meng is also looking to the future. "Now I'm vaccinated I want to go out with my family and see beautiful places nearby, like the river. I want to have more happiness and more friends. That's my hope."
The implementation of the national identification process would not have been possible without the support of the European Union, Sida and the Joint SDG Fund. Support to roll-out the of the Covid-19 vaccination for persons with disabilities was made possible by generous support of DFAT.