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Cambodian Disabled Arts Festival Promotes Equal Rights

A festival aimed at promoting disabled artists in Cambodia has just ended in the nation's capital, Phnom Penh. Despite having one of the world's highest rates of disabled people, social, political and economic discrimination against the disabled is widespread in Cambodia. Organizers say that the aim of the festival was to try to help change popular perceptions of disability in Cambodia by promoting disabled people's abilities rather than their disabilities. Rory Byrne reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.

Hundreds of mainly disabled children took part in the opening parade of the Spotlight Festival - the first of its kind in Cambodia aimed at promoting the rights of the disabled.

The children came from towns and cities all over Cambodia bringing a big splash of color on an otherwise dull afternoon in Phnom Penh.

Hannah Stevens, the Director of the Spotlight, says that the festival is trying to show how the disabled can play a fuller role in Cambodian society,

"I believe that Spotlight gives people the opportunity to prove their abilities. In Cambodia, we still have quite a problem where people with disabilities aren't integrated into society, there isn't full access to education, people aren't necessarily able to get jobs," said Stevens. "I think this project - the whole point of it is to promote the abilities of these people so that actually they're very, very capable to go to school, and to receive education, to participate in the arts and to participate in society generally."

Decades of war and poverty have left Cambodia with one of the highest rates of disabled people in the world. A 2005 report by the Asian Development Bank estimates that about 15 percent of the population is afflicted with some form of disability

That includes an estimated 40,000 land-mine survivors and 50,000 victims of preventable diseases like polio.

Like in other developing countries, disabled people in Cambodia are typically among the poorest of the poor. Many suffer discrimination in their daily lives.

Polio victim Ngin Saorath is the Executive Director of the Cambodian Disabled People's Organization.

"In Cambodia, there are a lot of discrimination towards people with disability because the people in Cambodia believe in Karma - they say that you did something wrong - because you did something very bad - in the past life, that's why you live and you're born with disability," explained Saroth.

Saroth says that disabled people in Cambodia are often denied access to education and employment opportunities.

"In the family most people they got the children with disability - they not allow the children to go to school or they just let the children to stay home and look after or cooking for the relative," added Saroth. "They feel that [a] disabled person cannot do anything - just look after the cow or take care of the sister or the nephew - so they cannot get education, they don't send their children to get education because they feel that in society there is no available job for [a] disabled person."

The Spotlight festival featured performances and workshops from a number of acclaimed disabled artists from Cambodia and the wider region

Performers included blind Cambodian musician Kong Nay, master of the so-called "Mekong Delta Blues," who some call the "Ray Charles of Cambodia" because of his trademark sunglasses.

Also performing at the festival was acclaimed drumming team Koshu Roa Taiko from Japan. All of the drummers are deaf and play by feeling the drum's vibrations

Mary Scott is the Country Director of the Cambodian Trust, a British NGO working to promote disabled rights in Cambodia:

"The Spotlight Festival was groundbreaking in Cambodia," she said. "There has never been a festival like that where people with disabilities and people without disabilities have pulled together to bring together a cultural programme."

As well as showing how the disabled can play a full role in the arts, the festival succeeded in bringing some joy into the lives of some of Cambodia's most vulnerable disabled children.

Organizers hope that festivals like Spotlight can help to bring about a general shift in attitudes towards the disabled in Cambodia and the wider region.