T welve-year-old Srey Leak has a brilliant smile. It's one of those sincere-as-sunrise numbers that could cheer the coolest countenance. She giggles, teases her young companions and twirls a small metal pole with girlish insouciance.
Her demeanor is deceptive. The illusion is that Leak's life is unencumbered - a childhood of innocence and happiness.
The reality is that Leak lives on a mountain of garbage. For the last ten years she's worked as a trash picker at Stung Meanchey to help support her family. The pole she carries is used to dig through waste in search for items that can be resold.
On this day she says she's looking for white plastic bags.
Over her shoulder three naked toddlers play with makeshift toys in a crevice between two trash mounds. They are covered thick with flies.
The garbage pickers of Stung Meanchey are an often-mentioned and highly visible example of the conditions endured by Cambodia's thousands of child workers struggling to survive from day to day.
While it's hardly a revelation to report that life is tough for the poor children, research released recently by UNICEF and several local NGOs has found disturbing new trends, complex challenges and even hints of optimism in the battle to remove Cambodia's youth from a longstanding cycle of poverty, abuse and exploitation.
"It's such an emotional issue. The first reaction that people - especially Westerners - have is that they want to take the child away from the bad stuff and put them in a nice home and give them nice things," said Haidy Ear-Dupuy, advocacy and communications manager for World Vision Cambodia (WVC).
"This is misleading. The real way to change the situation is to search for ways to help all the children in these situations - not just one."
A UNICEF statistical report, The State of the World's Children 2006: Excluded and Invisible, which was released December 14 but cites estimates from 2003, claims there are roughly 1,200 children living on the streets of Phnom Penh and between 10,000 and 20,000 children working on the streets full-time.
"Although Cambodia has experienced good economic growth, social inequity is also on the rise, exacerbating problems such as malnutrition, child labor and child trafficking," reads a UNICEF statement. "Without focused attention children will remain trapped and forgotten in childhoods of neglect and abuse, with devastating consequences for their long-term well-being."
According to the UNICEF report Cambodian children in four circumstances are most likely to suffer exploitation and discrimination: children who are not registered at birth and are not acknowledged as members of society, children without parental care or protection of a family environment, children forced too early into adult working roles, and children who are exploited.
UNICEF reported that children in Cambodia are trafficked within the country and to neighboring countries for sexual exploitation, begging and other hazardous work.
The agency found that these children are held back from school and other essential services and that an estimated 30 percent of the sex workers in Cambodia are between the ages of 12 and 17.
"The reality is better than the report," said Try Tan, UNICEF program communication officer. "But despite efforts and progress there are still many things that need to get done. The approach to child trafficking into sexual exploitation needs to be strengthened as well as HIV prevention programs, nutrition and education. Our focus is to think of all children - street children, orphans, minority groups and any child excluded from services and rights."
As part of its Combating the Worst Forms of Child Labor Project, WVC has published the findings of a three-month research project on child workers in Phnom Penh and Battambang. The interview-based report, How and Why We Work: Child Workers in the Informal Economy, found that 66 percent of the children surveyed in Phnom Penh and 70 percent surveyed in Battambang are working full time without any schooling.
"We believe that scavenging at the dump site is the 'worst form of child labor' because the fumes and extremely unsanitary and toxic conditions at the dump site have caused obvious skin disease on the child workers and may have caused other not-yet-visible health injuries," the report states.
"Children work at the dump site 12 hours per day, seven days per week and the dangerous work conditions and long hours jeopardize the health, safety and moral development of the child as provided in International Labor Organization Convention 182."
Bill Forbes, senior manager of WVC's Peace and Justice Program, explained that the report did not factor sexual exploitation into its research on child labor.
"Unquestionably, the commercial sexual exploitation of children is one of the worst forms of child labor," he said. "The distinction is how we work to eliminate that form and the strategies to help its survivors. We have other programs that focus on that. This research is into other forms of child labor."
According to the WVC report children working in brick factories, cleaning anchovies (prahok), and as day laborers are working 12-hour days, seven days a week, and those long hours have a disastrous impact on physical and moral development.
The report also found that child domestic workers "work alone in environments isolated from their families, peers and society."
"Domestic workers live in fear, tension, anxiety, exhaustion and need assistance with literacy training and skills training to prepare them for other occupations," the report states.
"The practice of allowing child domestic workers to visit their families only once or twice a year is tantamount to slavery, confinement and emotional abuse, all of which are violations of human rights."
WVC was "pleasantly surprised" to learn that there were no longer gangs controlling market areas and scavenging sites and reports that "we were awed by the child workers' adept skills at avoiding injury... and the informal network of [co-workers] and family members that serves to keep track of each child's whereabouts and safety."
The report concludes that Cambodia lacks alternative livelihood opportunities for child workers and their families and that training and education are needed to break the poverty cycle.
"The situation is something the government could have a win on and achieve positive international notice," said Forbes, who has been involved with Cambodian child labor since 1999. "It's do-able and winnable, but only with political will."
A profile of street children conducted by NGO Mith Samlanh/Friends International and to be released in late January, found increases in HIV numbers, drug abuse and the number of poor, rural children migrating to Phnom Penh to live and work on the streets.
"We're seeing a huge urban poverty increase. There's more poverty and more kids," said Tracy Sprott, a technical assistant on a Friends International migration project.
"There is an increase in migration [to the capital], a decrease in jobs, and a lot more poor people in Phnom Penh. The research that we're doing in Bangkok shows that a lot of Khmer children find themselves in Thailand or Vietnam. What needs to be established is if this is migration or if trafficking is involved."
Mith Samlanh found that most of the children living on the streets in Phnom Penh are above the age of 14, and a majority are male. Of children working on the streets but not homeless, the majority are under 14, and a third are girls.
"We're seeing more street children with higher education levels and some that are not that poor finding themselves on the street," said Sprott. "We've seen an increase in HIV and AIDS. In the past, living on the streets would lead to drugs, now it's drugs that are leading children to the street."
The research was gathered by examining the individual case files of every child entered into Mith Samlanh programs and centers during 2004.
"Obviously, it's the issues affecting children that make you realize things need to change," said Sprott , a British national who worked in Phnom Penh for two months on The Street Children Profile.
"But it's a negative energy to feel sorry for children. If you're feeling pity, you're not doing it for the good of the child. It's difficult to remove yourself from the emotional aspects: that's where you have to be strong. The energy needs to be put into the whole situation and how to change it."
Still, life at the Stung Meanchey dump goes on as always for Leak and others like her. She explains that she works the day scavenging shift. Around 5pm the night crew of trash pickers will descend on the smoldering mounds of refuse, and she'll make her way to her family's camp site at the edge of the landfill.
"Nothing has changed since I've been here," she tells the Post. "It's still the same."