Cambodia, Laos, Philippines, 2018.
Despite rapidly growing economies and improved access to education, rates of malnutrition and adolescent pregnancy are escalating in South East Asia – the latter faster than anywhere else in the world – and the two crises are inherently intertwined.
The way we portray malnutrition urgently needs to move away from stereotypes and extremes. It’s not always a matter of jutting rib bones and distended stomachs – and while acute food crises absolutely require attention, we also have to reevaluate the way we are looking at what is happening elsewhere in the world. Malnutrition in Asia is responsible for over 30 per cent of child deaths across the continent – and yet less than a third of children are deemed medically “underweight”. Instead, they’re being fed energy drinks from a few months old, or having sugar spooned straight into their mouths by their mums. There isn’t enough food to achieve excess, so obesity rates stay low. But it’s still malnutrition. And it’s still a desperate situation.
Girls are particularly vulnerable, due to social hierarchies that place them at the bottom of the food ladder – not to mention teenage pregnancies – rates of which have doubled since 2012, and which serve to stretch resources even thinner: increasing the likelihood of inadequate eating habits for both the mother and child. Accordingly to nutritional experts in the region, nearly half of all women and girls in South East Asia are malnourished, even if they maintain an average BMI.
This series of portraits represents girls from different cultural, educational and family backgrounds – yet all who share stories of gendered discrimination, abuse and ultimately a great struggle for survival.
Cambodia – 19/01/2018 – Phnom Penh. Lying on her bed underneath the house she shares with her mother, brother and three children, 19-year-old Sopheak Chey cuddles her six-day-old daughter, Sreyta. “I used to be very concerned about feeding my children,” she says. “When I found out I was pregnant for the third time, I cried because I couldn’t feed the other two anyway. The only option is for me to eat less and to hope that things will change.”
Cambodia – 19/01/2918 – Phnom Penh. It’s thought that fifty per cent of Cambodia’s population is malnourished – and malnutrition is directly responsible for a third of all child deaths across the country. But the crisis extends across the generations. Vanny Sin is 76 years old, and has been raising her granddaughter, Kakada Vong, on her own since the beginning of August. “We have no income, and no food,” she says. “My son and my daughter-in-law abandoned their child as soon as she was born. I am too old to work. But there is no one else.”
Cambodia – 20/01/2018 – Phnom Penh. Sreyrath Chak is 19, and eight months pregnant. Her daughter, Saravatey, is three. The family survives on porridge and scraps of old veg they scavenge from the local rubbish dump.
She hadn’t expected how hard it would be to feed a baby. “We have no money,” she says. “I give my daughter the water I use to boil rice in, and then she cries because her tummy hurts. Sometimes we find a pig’s leg, so we roll it in salt to make it last one or two weeks. By the end, it’s covered in flies.”
Cambodia – 02/02/2018 – Phnom Penh. New mother Reaksmey Kung, 18 years old, feeds her three-month-old daughter, Meyheang Hou, on the edge of Baku dumpsite. “Everything we own, we scavenged,” says Reaksmey’s husband Hou, proudly. Reaksmevy is quieter. “But we can’t scavenge formula milk,” she says. “Nobody throws that away.” It costs six dollars for one tub, and even if she dilutes it with rainwater, it only lasts five days. Now Reaksmey and Hou have stopped eating. “We are trying to use water as food for us,” Hou explains.
Cambodia – 30/01/2018 – Phnom Penh. Born and raised on the boats that line Phnom Penh’s riverbanks, 17-year-old Kunthea and her 25-year-old husband Gneng are just one of the many Muslim families that make their living by fishing among the shallow waters of the Bassac river. “We fish all night and then sell our catch in the morning,” says Kunthea. “Even if we are hungry, we can never keep any for ourselves.” Her husband Gneng stays by their side all day and night. “It is dangerous to leave them,” he says.
Cambodia – 22/02/18 – Phnom Penh. Herny Ros, aged 17, has always lived on a boat. “Growing up, I used to dream of having a real house,” she says. “I used to be scared of the water.” She couldn’t even swim until two years ago: it was only when she got married at 15 and had to leave her family that she finally learned how to stay afloat. “Now I worry that my daughter, Lyna, could fall in the water and die,” she says. “But I worry about everything. I worry that we don’t earn enough to eat properly. I worry that Lyna will always be small. The older she gets, the more difficult life becomes.”
Cambodia – 17/02/18 – Phnom Penh, dump site. Hou Kheang, 70 years old. She lives with her four year old grandson Yean Panha, after her son and daughter-in-law abandoned him, claiming he was too big of a burden for them to care for. As teenage parents, they were young, unemployed and unprepared for raising a child.
A few nights ago, Kheang was attacked by a drunk man who lives near to her hut. He tried to strangle her until other neighbours came to stop him. As an older woman, she says she feels particularly vulnerable.
Cambodia – 04/02/18 – Phnom Penh. Has Saly, 24 years old, is helping her 19 year old sister Hasanas Rong take care of her baby Eyni Not, who is two. Has Saly often has to give money to Hasanas to buy formula milk for her baby.
After being left by her husband while she was pregnant, Hasanas went back to live with her family since she has no job and no way to earn money. Hasanas and Eyni both suffer often from hunger, but say it would be worse if her family couldn’t help them at all.
Cambodia – 08/02/18 – Mondulkiri region. Pou Les village. Pert Pom with her son Tola Krak (two years old). Pert Pom is now three months pregnant. Her family has struggled financially ever since her father died when she was nine, and Pert says she knows what it means to go without food for several days. She grew up thinking that marriage would improve her situation – that as soon as she found a husband, she would have enough food to survive. It was only after the wedding that she learned she would be living with her older husband in a little hut – and that whatever food they could afford, her husband would insist upon eating first — before his son, or his wife.
Cambodia – 09/02/2018 – Mondulkiri region. Dina Theourn, 16 years old, is seven months pregnant. As soon she got married she decided that she wanted to get pregnant, but now the baby is only a couple of months away, and she’s increasingly scared. She works with her husband in the fields, growing potatos and bananas. On a good day, they earn $4 between them. There aren’t many good days at the moment.
“Now that I’m pregnant I’m always hungry, but there’s never enough food” she says, adding that while her doctor has told her to rest and not to eat too much sugar or salt, the village elders’ advice is contradictory. They tell her to wake up really early and work as hard as she can – in a bid to make the baby stronger.
Cambodia – 09/02/2018 – Mondulkiri. Louch Vi, 17 years old, is feeding her two sons.
Louch lives in a hut in the Mondulkiri region with her two children and her husband. As an infant, she was abandoned by her parents and left alone with her elderly grandmother until she was 12 — when her grandmother suddenly died. Louch subsequently started to work in a coffee shop where she met her husband — a waiter, who was twice her age.
Now a mother of two, Louch and her sons go days at a time without food, because her husband spends most of his income on alcohol.
Cambodia – 14/02/2018 – Phnom Penh.
Kem Socheat is 18 or 19 – she’s not sure – and has an eight month old son, Heang Chanleang. “It’s hard being a girl here,” she says, crouched on the ground next to an abandoned section of railway track where she lives.
She speaks quietly so her neighbours can’t hear her. “The men ask us to do things for money, and sometimes when there is no food and you can’t feed your child and you can’t get work, you think ‘maybe I should just say yes’. It’s like that’s just my fate. Who am I to fight it?” She doesn’t have friends. “Nobody is looking out for me. I am completely on my own.” –
She pauses. “But I can’t give up yet.”
Cambodia – 15/02/2018 – Phnom Penh. Toch Mary, 19 years old, is five months pregnant. She lives in the centre of the city with her husband and in-laws, who make their money by selling starlings by the side of the road to tourists, who believe setting them free will bring them luck. As for herself, Mary isn’t sure how she’ll ever find the luck she needs to make her life easier. As it is, she hasn’t eaten in over two days. “Maybe if I let all of the birds go at once,” she says. “Maybe then my baby will have a better future.”
Cambodia – 21/02/18 – Phnom Penh. Sreyoun Sern (19 yo) is from Kandal province and every day for the last five months comes and goes, walking two or three hours, to Phnom Penh to work in a massage parlour. Her job is not stable, sometimes they call her more than once per day, other times few days pass without anyone call her and she spend time walking up and down the riverbank looking for customers. She has to use whatever she earns to support her family. Her mother is sick and can’t work and all her sibilings are too young to work and with her uncertain job it often happens that they often go more than one day without eating.
Sreyoun got married when she was 13-14 yo, pushed by her family becuase her father got sick and they needed the dowry her husband’s family would have paid for the wedding.
During her period with her husband she had two children then her mother gave her two children to an NGO that could take care of them.
Now she can’t see her children and the NGO can’t tell her where they are.
21/02/18 – Cambodia. Phnom Penh. Sreyoun Sern, 17 years old, is from Cambodia’s Kandal province. Every day she walks for two or three hours from her village to reach Phnom Penh, where she works in a massage parlour. Whatever she earns goes to support her family. Her mother is sick and can’t work and all her sibilings are too young to work. If Sreyoun doesn’t earn any money, no one will be able to eat. “Sometimes my nieces and nephews are so hungry they faint on the way home from school,” she says.
Sreyoun got married when she was about 13 years old; pushed by her family after her father fell sick and couldn’t earn enough money to feed them. Her husband was infected with HIV, and quicked passed the disease over to his new wife. She was pregnant within a year, and now has two children. Recently, money was so hard to come by and the children were growing so thin, that her mother forced her to give them away to a local orphanage. “I miss them every day,”
Cambodia – 20/01/18 – Phnom Penh. Baku dumpsite. Sreypin Touch (16 yo) with her daughter Serre Ratona Sat (one year and six months old). Sreypin moved nearby the dumpsite six months earlier, before that she used to live in a commune. She is married since two years with another scavenger – she say he is a hard worker and a good man, he doesn’t drink and he never beat her – becuase her mother pushed her to get marry becuase it would have helped the family situation. Even though her mother told her about contraception, she got pregnant a few months after the wedding and she didn’t want to have an abortion.
Sreypin says she had no clue what being a mum meant – it’s only now that she understands how hard it is, especially when it comes to feeding her child. She didn’t have any breastmilk to feed her daughter, and no money for formula milk so, following her neighbours’ tips, she feeds her with water and sugar. This causes her daughter to be sick and Sreypin is really worried about her. Now she is pregnant again and she doesn’t know what to do.
20/01/18 – Cambodia. Phnom Penh. Baku dumpsite. Sreypin Touch (16) with her daughter Serre Ratona Sat (one year and six months). Sreypin moved to the dumpsite six months ago, after marrying a local scavenger. Her mother arranged the marriage in the hope that it would improve things for the whole family. Sreypin isn’t so sure. When she fell pregnant shortly after the wedding, she didn’t understand what was happening. She thought maybe it would be fun. It’s only now that she understands how hard it is, especially when it comes to feeding her child. She didn’t have any breastmilk to feed her daughter and no money for formula milk so, following her neighbours’ tips, she feeds her with water and sugar.
Now she is pregnant again and she doesn’t know what to do.
Laos – 06/05/2018 – Hatsoua village. Tuktah Souvanlit, 17 years old, lives with her son Tonkun, aged 1 year and three months, and her adoptive mother Kanvah, who is 66. Her husband is a drug addict and after they got married in 2016 he became violent, so her mother sent him away.
Tuktah doesn’t have a job; she tries to make brushes out of reeds to sell at the market but it’s not a great way to earn money, so the family is often without food. Tuktah would like to go back to school but she knows she can’t because she has an obligation to raise her son. At this point, she thinks that the only way to improve her life is to get married to a man that can take care of them.
Laos – 08/05/18 – Luang Prabang province. Phon Xieng village. Tong, 19 years old, is a farmer and mother of two. Every day she goes to collect bamboo roots to sell on the side of the road – desperate to earn enough money to feed her 11 month old son, and five years old daughter. Her husband is 24 years old, and married her when Tong was only 13. Life has been tough ever since. These days they mostly eat bowls of plain rice – occasionally paired with some fish soup or bamboo. “I’m afraid my children won’t grow strong,” she says.
Laos – 18/05/2018 – Na Wan village. Kidnapped from outside her home five years ago when she was only 13, 19 year old Jailocou has accepted her husband’s actions, but feels angry at the tradition of “bride stealing” that continues across northern Laos. “It’s not the girls’ fault,” she says. “We’re taken away by men who are much older and bigger than us, and nobody comes to rescue us because it’s considered part of our culture.” Her husband, Sijahn, is 30 years old. “He told me we were taking a bus to Luang Prabang, but took me to his parents’ house in Vientiane instead. When I realised where we were going, I cried and begged to go home because I was so scared, but he said it was too late.” Within a month of arriving in the capital, Jailocou was pregnant with her first child – a daughter, who died after three months. She’s since given birth to two sons, David, 3 years old, and Aliya, 4 years old.
Laos – 29/05/2018 – Chom Xing village. Say Yang, 18 years old, housekeeper.
It was 5am, and 16-year-old Say had
just finished cooking rice for her family when she was stolen from her kitchen by a group of three men in their late 20s. “They were all on motorbikes, and they carried me out and put me onto the back of one of them. Then they drove so fast I couldn’t get off.” Later, one of the men went back to see her parents and told them where she was. “I tried not to be afraid, because I knew it was all my fault for not screaming for help,” she says. “I always knew I would be stolen eventually. I’d seen it happen to all of my friends at school. But when it happened to me, I was too scared to escape.” She’s now the mother of a two-month-old boy.
Laos – 19/05/2018 – Na Wan village. Phout Sada, 15 years old, in church during mass. Phout Sada, along with many other young Hmong girls, recently converted to christianity.
Phout is currently four months pregnant, and struggling to cope after her husband took her from her parents’ house earlier this year and brought her across town to his family home. Unlike some of the other girls, Put knew her kidnapper in advance. “I thought we were boyfriend and girlfriend,” she says quietly. “He bought me a silver necklace and he said he loved me.” She wasn’t expecting him to trick her into leaving her mother and father behind. “He told me we were going to go shopping, but then he brought me to his village instead. When I asked to leave, he said that wasn’t allowed, and that I belonged to him now.”
Laos – 16/05/2018 – Na Wan village. Bee Veu, 23 years old, with her three daughters: Sai, 4 years and 6 months old, Maya, 2 years old and Gausal 4 months old.
Bee was married at 16 when her husband was 27, after he kidnapped her and forcefully brought her back to his village, according to an ancient Hmong tradition.
These days, her husband doesn’t have a job and there’s nobody else to help support them. “I’m grateful that I can still breastfeed my babies,” she says. “But how can I feed myself?”
Laos – 02/06/2018 – Na Wan village. Mi Yah with her twin daughters Koh and Kao, three years old, and her son Wah, one year and six months old.
“When my husband brought me here four years ago, I cried because I was so afraid,” says Mi as she watches her three-year-old twin girls play in the mud outside their wooden hut — breastfeeding her 18 month old son at the same time. “But I don’t cry anymore. I’m too tired to cry. I’m too tired to feel anything.” Her husband works in construction in the city, leaving her alone with their children for days at a time. “I’m so lonely,” she says. “After I was stolen, my parents called me and asked me to come home. They said I was too young to get married, and that I’d made a bad mistake. But my husband didn’t let me leave, so I couldn’t get away.” She pauses. “I never thought my life would be as difficult as this.”
Philippines – 03/09/2018 – Gonsangan Area 4 – Noronisah Rashed, 21, hugs her three year old son, Johaiver Esmael. A mother of four, whose firstborn died shortly after labour, Noronisah is two months pregnant with her fifth child. “I married my husband when I was 14,” she remembers. “I’d already stopped going to school because my elder sister needed somebody to help take care of her children. When my brother set me up with Esmael, my parents gave their consent. He proposed right away, and we were married within three months.” The reality of daily hunger and financial strain didn’t sink in until after their wedding. “Esmael only earns 100 pesos a day for food – it’s not enough. How am I supposed to buy milk or nappies? We don’t eat dinner because we don’t have enough food to go around. I try to breastfeed my youngest two children, but I don’t have any milk left, and powdered milk costs 100 pesos every two days. Most days, I just eat plain rice. I’m very scared about the future.”
Philippines – 03/09/2018 – Saguiran Evacuation Camp.
Salma Pandac, 21 years old, sits in the makeshift shelter that she built with her family after they were evacuated from Marawi during the siege in 2017. She has two children.
“I never imagined that I would get married at 17. I was going to school every day, and studying to be a teacher. My favourite subject was Filipino. I thought that if I had a job, life would be easier for me and my family. But my parents thought that having a husband would be best of all. I’m not sure if they’re right though. I can’t sleep because I’m so worried about my babies, and we don’t have any food at all. At least when I was living with my parents, we had rice.”
Philippines – 05/09/2018 – Mindanao – Tanombay Edu Lakim, 19 years old, was married to her 40 year old husband when she was aged ten. She now has five children, aged between nine and six months.
“I was forced to get married. My parents said, ‘are you ready to get married?’ and I said no because I thought I was too young. But my father said ‘I want to see my grandchildren before I die’. I cried when he said that – I was so distressed – but I didn’t have a choice. I had to fulfil his wishes.”
“Everything became even harder with the babies. I gave birth at home and I couldn’t scream because my mother told me to stay quiet. I thought breastfeeding would be easy, but it turns out that it’s difficult when you don’t have enough food to sustain your own body. But I’d rather go without if it means I can feed my children. Sometimes when I’m hungry I have to tell myself, ‘if you eat, one of your babies will not be able to’.”
Philippines – 06/09/2018 – Mindanao – Charlene Mokudef, 17 years old, is mother to Chennie, aged two. Chennie lives with Charlene’s in-laws, after they realised she was unable to cope.
“I got pregnant the same day that I met my husband. It was his idea to have sex, but we had been drinking, and I agreed. I had no idea what to do. I knew about condoms, but my husband said he didn’t want to wear them. He said he would make sure he didn’t ejaculate inside me though, so that I would be safe. But then he did anyway.”
“After I gave birth, I tried to be a good mother, but my husband’s parents said I wasn’t feeding my daughter enough food. They said she was too thin, so they said she had to go and live with them in the next town. I haven’t seen her for months and months now. I miss her every day. But until I have money and a job, I can’t get her back.”
Philippines – 06/09/2018 – Mindanao. Ailea Kathlyn Gulok Dalimbang, 17 years old, is mother to her eight month old daughter, Kathlyn Mae.
“I got married because I was pregnant. I was 16, and I didn’t want to be a mother – I wanted to study – but my periods were irregular and I knew something was wrong. When the doctor told me I was pregnant, I told her she was lying to me. I wished the baby away, but she stayed.
Life is tough when you have a child. You have to feed her, several times a day. My husband is a fisherman, but often there is no fish in the sea, so we have to make do with whatever we can find. All I want is to be able to keep my baby alive, but it’s very worrying.”