Cambodia’s street children: An ignored tragedy

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A young boy sells kramas along Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh. Post pix

Cambodia, once a war-torn country, has been the world’s sixth fastest-growing economy over the past two decades according to the World Bank with an average GDP growth of 7.6 per cent, driven by strong garment exports and tourism.

The Kingdom has also demonstrated a strong performance in poverty reduction, including improvements in maternal health – from 47.8 per cent in 2007 to 13.5 per cent in 2014 – thanks to development partners and an influx of foreign direct investment from China.

Despite these achievements, the Kingdom is not immune to growing social issues which are threatening its sustainable development and socio-economic landscape.

The issue of street children, among these, often fails to gain traction from policy-makers and the general public due to the absence of public campaigns and advocacy.

The Inter-NGO Programme in Switzerland in 1983 defined street children as boys and girls who use the streets as their homes and source of livelihood, and who are not protected or supervised by adults.

A lack of comprehensive studies on street children by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans, and Youth Rehabilitation and stakeholders makes it difficult to estimate their number.

Wake-up call

However, a survey conducted by Friends International in 2014 estimated that between 10,000 to 20,000 children worked on the streets of Phnom Penh alone.

Similarly, estimates by the Unesco office in Phnom Penh suggest that there are 700,000 economically active children aged between five and 17, approximately three quarters of whom (72 per cent) had either dropped out of school or had never attended classes.

This should be a wake-up call to bring in appropriate policy action and contribution from policy-makers and the general public.

A number of key factors has created the growing number of street children in Cambodia. These include extreme poverty, social exclusion and forced evictions, which have seen thousands of families lose their homes and become even more destitute.

Despite being vulnerable to drugs and substance abuse, and human trafficking, street children in Cambodia are often left behind with limited assistance from humanitarian NGOs like the Cambodian Children’s Fund and Pour un Sourire d’Enfant, which are too dependent on foreign funding.

The increasing number of destitute children on the streets in Cambodia needs to be appropriately addressed.

Increase funding

Humanitarian NGOs in Cambodia have significant roles to play in raising public awareness and influencing key decision-makers for policy action.

This could be done through annual joint-public campaigns between NGOs and the government to raise public awareness and contribute towards addressing the issue of street children.

Such campaigns would as a result increase public influence for policy action and enable those NGOs to achieve self-sufficiency with local funding.

Pour un Sourire d’Enfant is a leading example, for instance, with its Ride 2 School campaign and Asean Cuisine Festival, which not only generate large funding from the public and the corporate community, but also grow public support for the better well-being of street children in Cambodia.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, as the key decision-maker, should consider appropriate policy action to address social exclusion in Cambodia, and increase funding for the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans, and Youth Rehabilitation to enhance and safeguard its efficiency in addressing the issue of street children.

This policy action will demonstrate to the general public, particularly voters and the international community, the government’s commitment to social inclusiveness and the protection of child rights.

Indeed, the development of Cambodia cannot be sustained without considering the principle of inclusiveness.

Street children are also the future of Cambodia and will later contribute to the development of the Kingdom, and policy action is needed to ensure they are ready to integrate themselves into society as global citizens.

This policy principle would build a resilient Cambodia.

Sopharith Sin is a recipient of an Australia Awards Scholarship. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Public Policy and Management at the University of Melbourne, Australia.