As you walk the streets, or drink and dine in Siem Reap you will at some stage undoubtedly be petitioned by children and adult male landmine victims to buy books or, in the case of the kids, postcards, jewellery or flowers. This post is not just a request to not buy anything from the children, but also a strong call to please buy from the adults.
The thing is this: visitors who buy from street children, or simply give them money, perpetuate a system that keeps the children out of school (though they are trained to tell you that they do go to school), and ensures that they, and their children, will remain in poverty for the rest of their lives. Children selling on the streets make more than the dozens of excellent NGOs can give to support families in need, so it becomes an easy option in which the child’s future is sacrificed. In a horrifying new turn for Cambodia, a recent report in the Phnom Penh Post highlighted how parents in Poipet are breaking their own children’s limbs in order to increase their “value” as beggars. It could only be a matter of time before such a practice emigrates to Siem Reap.
On top of that, while working on the streets, children are exposed to the dangers of drugs, trafficking and sexual predators. No matter how compassionate it may seem, giving to or buying from children perpetuates an act of cruelty. It takes strength to say no to them, but when weighed against the dangers it is a strength I’m sure we all can find.
If you would like to do something to really help Cambodians instead of giving to or buying from street kids, then there are alternatives. For example, each time you find yourself tempted to buy from a kid on the street, please put aside the money you would have given, and then go to visit the offices of ConCERT, an organisation with many extraordinary roles, one of which is collecting donations on behalf of a number of registered local NGOs who are required to meet certain standards of accountability, management and child safety. ConCERT transfers 100% of any donations it receives and can also provide guidance on which organisation you’d most like to support.
Another option is to buy instead from the adult landmine victims, even if they’re not as cute or charming or able to ingeniously apply the most fascinating psychological mind-games as the kids. Through organised books sales, they have been given an opportunity to earn an income that would normally be denied to them as a result of their injuries, and this is vital to their families and to the maintenance of their dignity following a devastating event.
This is the premise behind the local Think Twice campaign whose posters and flyers call on us to “Help adults to earn and children to learn”. I’m asking you to do more than that: tell everyone you meet on your travels the same thing too and help them to get the message across. Be an ambassador for the future of Cambodia’s children.
Nicky Sullivan is an Irish freelance writer (and aspiring photographer). She has lived in England, Ireland, France, Spain and India, but decided that her tribe and heart are in Cambodia, where she has lived since 2007 despite repeated attempts to leave. She dreams of being as tough as Dervla Murphy, but fears there may be a long way to go. She can’t stand whisky for starters. She was a researcher, writer and coordinator for The Angkor Guidebook: Your Essential Companion to the Temples, now one of the best-selling guidebooks to the temples.
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