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Street children and child street sellers are a common occurrence here in Siem Reap, with an estimated 24,000 living and working throughout Cambodia. Selling everything from bracelets to roses, many scour the streets past midnight to earn a few dollars to take back home to their families.
But how far do the actions of tourists perpetuate the bad practice, and how much should we be supporting the street children in Cambodia, many of which are forced out on the streets to work by their parents?
There’s one girl we all knew in Siem Reap. At 11 years old, we were shocked to find her working at 10:30 pm. Her response was simply: “I’m fine. I don’t need to sleep. I’m out here because I love business”. But did she? Full of confidence, a great grasp of English and more clout than an average adult, she had hardened to the life she’s was born into. She probably never had what we know as a typical childhood, although it’s better for a child street seller to have clout than to fall prey to the various forms of exploitation that occurs here in Cambodia and the corrupt social system.
She never begged and if you didn’t want to buy something she would walk away. I would much rather if I had to choose, give money in an entrepreneurial transaction than give money to a plea and perpetuate the idea of dependency.
But more importantly, I want to support community projects or charities, like the one I worked at, that can support a child like her so that they don’t have to be subjected to this endless cycle of school AND work. Or, for some, only work.
The UN-backed campaign called ‘Think Twice’ is telling people not to buy from the children at all since it keeps them on the streets and keeps them at risk from a denial of education, child labour exploitation, sexual exploitation and trafficking.
Living in Siem Reap, I see the reality of this daily. Some tourists have good intentions but no concept of the wider implications. But others have complete disregard when it comes to the welfare of these street children.
I remember a time when the aforementioned young girl, her kid brother and a friend looked like they could be extra’s in a music video when they started performing on the street. It entertained the masses, it formed a crowd of spectators and the cameras come out and snap away enthusiastically. They challenged Westerners to a dance-off and some accepted; while others threw money at the kids after like it was the greatest show on earth. Then the majority of the crowd walked away after enjoying the show.
Would you stand by and watch your little brother, sister, niece or nephew perform on the street?
I wouldn’t. Every time I saw this it broke my heart. I sat there not knowing what to do. We tried telling them to go home but some of them had no choice but to be out there supporting their parents. The little boy was so overwhelmed one night that he was in floods of tears. His sister told us on another night, around 9 pm, that he was at home sleeping ready for the night’s activities.
Why allow this show to happen? If we didn’t form crowds and encourage it then possibly, just possibly, the children would realise there is nothing to gain from it. Now, they know that it is easy money, and thanks to irresponsible tourists, have been turned into performers.
But the problem is, where else does their ‘income’ come from? On the one hand, they see this as a guaranteed handful of dollars, yet it is probably benefiting an adult more than them. On the other hand by supporting ‘performance’ you are overshadowing the better notion of ‘business’ (buying something from them) in place of extreme exploitation. In an ideal situation, you wouldn’t give them anything at all.
It’s a terrible situation to witness and difficult to know what to do.
Trapped by the lack of education of their parents, who know of nothing except hardship and the need to send their children out to work for extra support, the only hope of ending this sad situation is the education of the new generation. Going to school during the day and working in the evening is something we could never imagine putting our kids through in the Western world.
However, education is the only way of breaking the cycle and in the long term, we can only hope that education leads to a stable job and that these children’s children won’t have to lead the same life. Think Twice states: “Instead of giving a short-term $1 to a street kid, support organisations who can educate long-term.”
These are young children. They have no childhood. They have no choice. But as a visitor to this town, you can at least help steer what little choice they have in the right direction.
The question is: What would you do?