Dec 12 2011
“O would some power the gift to give us
To see ourselves as others see us!”
— Robbie Burns, To A Louse
We are sometimes the worst judges of how we and our actions are perceived or experienced by others, and never more so than when we’re in a strange environment where we do not speak the language or understand the unspoken codes. As much as our communications channels are stunted, the critical faculties that so ably reveal to us the tricksters, cons and charades at home seem to melt away when exposed to the tropical heat. Our sense of wide-eyed wonder is activated and captivated by the beauty and novelty of everything around us, and sometimes it forgets where to draw the line.
When I lived in Phnom Penh, I regularly bought books and newspapers from the kids on the riverfront. As a process, this sure as hell beat pulling a copy of The Economist off a sterile shelf in a newsagent and handing over the cash to some hang-jawed check-out worker at home. In fact, copies of The Economist used to come running down the street after me yelling “Lady, lady! Here your Ecomis!” They were wonderful kids: cheeky, bold and full of fun, they put an extra shine on my day. I had no idea, then, that I was doing them so much harm.
On International Volunteer Day this year — December 5 — a group of Siem Reap-based volunteers got together to launch a new campaign aimed at raising awareness of the issues around buying products from street kids in Cambodia. Think Twice! hopes to put that apparently simple, honest and open-hearted transaction in its proper context, to help visitors see beyond the smile and the banter to the effects their actions really have on the lives of others.
With their confident sales pitch and irreverent jokes, these kids certainly don’t look that vulnerable, and it may seem that giving a dollar, or more, for a few beads or postcards is helping them — giving them money for school, food and their families. It’s not. It is sustaining a system that keeps the kids out of school, that exploits their charms for labour, and that exposes them to the dangers of sexual predators, traffickers and drug dealers. Selling newspapers and souvenirs on the streets is often the first step on the path to life as a sex worker. I was horrified when I learned from an aid-worker that most of the kids from whom I bought my Economist in Phnom Penh, some of them really young, were almost all sexually active and available, for a price.
According to reports by World Vision and the Consortium for Street Children , there were an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 street working children in Cambodia in 2001.
In Phnom Penh, 88% of vulnerable children, including street children, had had sexual relations with tourists. While those figures are now a decade old, with more tourists in Cambodia today than ever, the incentives for putting kids on the street are correspondingly higher. Edited, full report here (page 32), but sample size very small and the report is a decade old.
I stopped buying from them because without a customer to buy the products, the families and the middle-men who put the kids on the street no longer have an incentive for doing so. According to the director of one children’s charity in Siem Reap, many of the kids working the streets in Siem Reap aren’t even from Siem Reap province anymore. They have been brought in to tap into the lucrative market in tourists’ sympathy and desire to connect with Cambodia.
The children themselves do not see the money that they work so hard to earn. Some will go to their families, the rest to the middle-men who supply the postcards and beads and books.
When you see the young girls selling flowers in bars at midnight, just imagine, would this be acceptable if she were your daughter? There are alternatives. Families do struggle here, but support is available from a network of hard-working locally based charities that provide education, healthcare, vocational training and other material supports for families in need. Examples include Anjali House, Grace House, the Green Gecko Project, the Sangkheum Centre, Sunrise Children’s Villages, The Global Child and many more. You can help them with donations or, in select cases, offers of voluntary support. They really are effective in helping the families they reach, and you can help them to reach even more, even better.
Don’t just take my word for it. The Think Twice! campaign is supported by businesses and organisations all over Siem Reap, and you’ll see posters, stickers, flyers and postcards everywhere soon. Moreover, the campaign is backed by the International Labour Organisation, UN Volunteers, Australian Aid, Friends International, Childsafe Network, ConCert Cambodia and Anjali House.
For more information on the campaign, check out the Think Twice! facebook page. And if you’d like to understand more about the context of child street begging and vending, you’ll find some helpful information here:
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