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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Child vendors work the night beat

Child vendors work the night beat

From the tourist waterfront bars to the backstreet beer gardens, the sight of

small children bearing trays of flowers or food is common in Phnom Penh. In the

tourist areas they sell flowers and crackers; for their Khmer clientele it is

more silkworms, crickets, small birds and spiders.

Som Samphos, 7 (striped shirt), sells mangos.

What they have in

common, though, is that many of them work the late hours so that when day comes

they will have enough money to pay for their schooling and food for their



Sao Soloriya, 13, knows this well enough. His days are repetitively similar:

mornings are spent at school, the afternoon is the time to buy insects in the

market and prepare them.

From early evening until 10pm Soloriya takes his wares from table to table

asking the patrons in a soft voice to "please buy one for your drink".

Persistence, his long experience shows, pays off.

"It is not easy

to sell one or two cans of docdeour (silkworms) and red ants unless I wait at

the table for around five minutes," says Soloriya.

Four hours of going

from restaurant to restaurant brings him around 15,000 riel, most of which he

sends to his mother in Takeo province for seed and fertilizer for her rice

field. Soloriya has worked on the streets since 1995, the year his father died

from disease.

Who can resist these young vendors' wares?

Ten-year-old Yin Tha says that his circumstances are

different to Soloriya's. He says his mother forces him to sell his tray of

Chinese-style crackers. If he does not, he will be beaten.

For five hours

of work, Tha earns only around 8,000 riel.

"It is hard selling bags of

crackers," he says. "Unless the clients are drunk and surrounded by beer girls,

they won't buy them. They don't eat them - they just buy them for the


Sun Tola, 14, says that his mother doesn't have the money to send

him to school. If he wants an education, he has no choice but to sell insects,

something he has done for four years. For him, however, the work has become more

fun than a chore.

On some nights Tola earns 20,000 riel, around $5. In

the past he has been robbed of his earnings; these days he makes sure he sticks

near his friends.

"I am not worried about losing my money. If I can't

sell tonight, I will just bring it back to sell again tomorrow. I can keep these

insects for three days at least," says Tola. "Sometimes the clients don't want

to eat them but they buy because they feel sorry for us small, poor


Meng Sokmean, aged 10, shines shoes.

Mar Sophea, national program manager for the International Labour

Organization's (ILO) program to eliminate child labor, says there is a lack of

quality research available on child street vendors.

"We do talk to child

vendors," says Sophea, "and we know that they come out at night because they are

poor and have to earn money to pay for school."

He estimates that around

670,000 Cambodian children aged between 5 and 17 work on a daily basis. Half

work in agriculture, others in fishing and forestry.

For all of them,

says Sophea, the more time spent working, the less time they will have for

study. Some will likely quit school, others will not achieve their potential.

Both affect the ability of the country to compete in tomorrow's


The government, he says, has shown it is keen to tackle a problem

which is common to all developing nations: for instance it has ratified the

international convention on child labor.

"The government has the

political commitment to eliminate child labor, but the real commitment is

financial," says Sophea. "We are concerned that child street vendors are at risk

of dangers including rape, drug abuse and crime."

Despite the

Constitution's commitment to provide free primary and secondary education to all

citizens, government officials do not respect that.

"Look at the

situation of individual teachers: they work against the Constitution because

they force children to pay fees. That happens from Grade 1," says Sophea. "If

the government cannot eliminate bribery at school, poor families will be unable

to fulfill their duty to provide a good education for children. The result will

be increased child labor on the streets."

Sun Tola, aged 14, offers cooked shrimp.

The ILO's report on child labor

in Cambodia, released May 2001, showed that more than half of the country's

working children do not attend school. Girls fared worse than boys: only one in

three working girls went to school.

Sophea says the problem is compounded

by the weak economy, low standards of education and poor law enforcement. The

government, he says, has the responsibility to change that.

Lim Mony,

head of women's affairs at human rights NGO ADHOC, says that rampant corruption

has also contributed to the problem of child labor. She also says domestic

violence and the lack of a safety net for children put pressure on them to


"We cannot blame the parents," says Mony, "because they are poor.

The government has to take responsibility."

She says the current

education system is not helping the younger generation, since it is teaching

them they need to earn extra money to pay bribes.

Seven-year-old Sophas,

another street vendor, knows that well enough: she has to pay her teacher 300

riel a day, but is already a week behind.

"My teacher threatened to beat

me and stop me from coming to school if don't pay," she says.

With his

tray of fried insects, Soloriya, a little older, is more reflective. Of course,

he says, he doesn't get to enjoy the relaxing games that the children of rich

people do, but that is his fate. Being born into a poor family and living the

life he does, says Soloriya, is punishment for bad deeds in a previous


"I don't envy other children," he says. "My family is poor, my

mother is 42 years old and works in her rice field. I have to support my mother.

She needs me to do that."

It is what he has done for almost half his

short life. Soloriya turns away and takes his bowls of red ants, crickets and

silkworms. It is time to find another table of thirsty drinkers




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