He is maybe four, definitely not more than five years old. I am on my way to Mith Samlanh’s drop-in centre for street children in Phnom Penh, and so is he. He is wearing a pair of blue shorts that are slightly too big for him and nothing else. No shoes, no shirt, no belt. So he is constantly pulling his shorts up with his free hand. With the other one he picks up an empty bottle and puts it in the big plastic bag he carries over his shoulder. Later today he will sell the recyclable stuff he has been collecting. His steps are determined and it is obvious that he has been here before. When he passes the door step he drops his plastic bag and grabs a big, red plastic horse instead. He sits on it and jumps together with two other children his age. He laughs.
Mith Samlanh’s car
Childhood supports Mith Samlanh holistic services for street children in Phnom Penh. The drop-in centre is the second step in the chain of support. It is a place where children can play, get some basic education, healthcare and counseling for how to leave the street. The aim is to get the children off the street, back to school and to a family environment. Mith Samlanh does not provide food and night-shelter to the children since that might keep the children in the street even longer.
It’s my first trip to Cambodia for Childhood. I can clearly see that Cambodia is the poorest country of all the countries that Childhood works with. I’m trying to sort my expressions after a couple of days in the country while sitting at a small café in a street corner, observing the nightlife. Soon I’ll follow Mith Samlanhs night patrol with social workers, who search forchildren living and working on the streets. They are not hard to find. Among the crowd of tuk tuks and fully loaded scooters, there are four, five, and six year old children walking around trying to sell trinkets or collect empty bottles. You see babies and toddlers with their moms sitting on the sidewalk, selling vegetables or textiles. Teenagers are walking around trying to sell CDs to tourists. The average income of the children who work on the streets is between $ 0.2 and $ 1 per day. It’s not hard to understand that these children easily become victims for adults who want to abuse them for their own purposes. By selling sex to a foreigner, a child can earn a monthly income.
Many of the children have arrived together with their families and live together with them on the streets. Others have run away from home, been sold by a relative or found their own way to the streets to earn money. Mith Samlanh has an impressive network all over Phnom Penh. Tuk tuk drivers, street vendors and hotel owners have been educated and certified “child safe members” and they call the police or Mith Samlanh if they find a child in a vulnerable situation. Through their network and through the trust from families and children, Mith Samlanh receives information about new children on the streets. Sometimes they can intervene already in the first couple of days when a child has ended up on the streets. Intervention in an early stage makes it easier to find the child’s family and to bring the child back to school. For those who have lived on the streets for a long time it is a lot harder and takes a lot longer to come back to society again.
For most of the children it’s poverty that drives them to the streets. I think of it when I see another foreigner who bargains mercilessly in the market to bring the price down as much as possible. For the young Frenchman in shorts and T-shirt it’s only a sport, but for the seller it’s all too often those exact dollars that makes it possible for her to give the family enough food and to send her children to school
Photo: Britta Holmberg