Structural Violence and the Vulnerable In Cambodia

This is a drawing by Kol of the first person she saw upon awakening from her coma. Photograph by Erin Moriarty Harrelson

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—My first brush with the medical system in Cambodia was in late November when a close friend had to suddenly leave a luncheon she was hosting at her house to interpret for someone at a hospital. Her husband took over supervising the festivities so we continued to sit in a circle, cross-legged, on a plastic mat on their airy balcony, eating and drinking beer poured over ice. It didn’t occur to me that the situation at the hospital might involve another friend of mine, who was about to go through one of the worst experiences of her life.

Emily didn’t share the particulars of the situation because she is a professional sign language interpreter, one of 15 or so in Cambodia, bound to a code of ethics which mandates privacy and confidentiality for the deaf client. It wasn’t until the next day or so that I discovered through the deaf network that my friend had lost her baby at almost eight months of pregnancy, giving birth to a tiny, perfectly formed but dead baby.

When I visited May at her home after she had been released from the hospital, my sweet, beautiful friend was curled up alone on the bed in the room she shared with her mother, wearing a knitted hat, a scarf, sweats, and thick woolly socks, despite it being 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In Cambodia, it is common practice for the mother to “heat” by wearing warm clothing– and sometimes in rural areas, to “roast” by sleeping over a fire to restore warmth to her body. Giving birth causes the mother to lose her “hot” state and heating restores her to her natural state. May had given birth, so she had to undergo this treatment, despite the lack of a baby.

When I walked in with Emily, May’s eyes —> Read More