Children of jailed parents are required to leave detention by the time they turn 6 years old.
ON MAY 20, Sok Mao was picked up from Prey Sar prison by her older sister, who drove her on a motorbike to a concrete house in Phnom Penh's Meanchey district, north of the Monivong Bridge.
Though the ride - in particular, the sheer volume of cars and motorbikes on the capital's roads - frightened her, Sok Mao, who is 6, said she mostly felt relief at finally being able to leave the prison, where she had been held since she was 2.
"When I lived inside the prison I always wished to be free, and now that I am I don't ever want to go back there again," she said in a recent interview.
Sok Mao, a bright, cheeky, humorous girl, is the daughter of prisoner Sok Douen. Four years ago, Sok Doeun was convicted on human trafficking charges for working as a prostitute and received a 12-year sentence. Her husband left her more than five years ago, and there were no other relatives to care for Sok Mao. So Sok Doeun opted to take her daughter with her to Prey Sar's women's facility, Correctional Centre 2.
There are currently at least 50 children aged 6 and under living behind bars, according to the rights group Licadho, which tracks prison populations in 18 of the country's 26 prisons.
Groups such as Licadho have attempted to reach out to the children at Prey Sar - most recently by bringing them gifts and hiring comedians to perform for them on International Children's Day last month.
But no comprehensive support system has yet been established for children who leave Cambodia's prisons, which they must do when they turn 6 years old.
The case of Sok Mao demonstrates this resource gap, said people familiar with her case.
Since her release, Sok Mao has had no contact with NGOs or prison authorities and has received no offers of counseling or financial aid that would enable her to attend school.
When i lived inside the prison i always wished to be free, and now that i am i don't ever want to go back.
"My aunt is very poor, and she can't afford to send me to school," Sok Mao said. "Most days I sleep, eat breakfast, and then go back to bed."
Marie-Laurence Comberti, president of the Cambodia chapter of the French NGO Association Mondiale des Amis de l'Enfance (AMADE), said
her office had been unable to locate Sok Mao.
"We were planning to look after Sok Mao when she was released," Comberti said. "But she was released early, and we didn't know where she had gone. Her mother told us that she has no family, and we are very concerned for her welfare because she has tuberculosis, which requires medical attention. Also, we don't know anything about the people she is living with."
Comberti said there are no statistics or other information available on children released from prison. She said the children she has met have faced difficult transitions complicated by the fact that they lack solid family support.
Adam Hutchinson of the Blue Gate Centre, an NGO that works to reintegrate prisoners into society, said Licadho sometimes contacts his office when it is concerned about a particular child, but he said "there is nothing systematic" in place when it comes to keeping tabs on children who leave Cambodia's prisons.
"We would like to work on that, but at the moment there are a number of NGOs getting their hands in the pot, and that can make things a bit more difficult," he said.
He said the uncoordinated nature of assistance to incarcerated children leads to some situations in which there is overlap and others in which no support is provided.
In some cases, he said, the children would be better off in prison, given the lack of care available to them on the outside.
He said the Blue Gate Centre had received no information on Sok Mao.
"We didn't hear of this case, and we weren't contacted about this child," he said.
Hutchinson said he believed NGOs were aware of the lack of resources for children such as Sok Mao and were working to fix the problem.
"I would say in a year's time ... cases like Sok Mao will be looking much better," he said.
Life on the outside
In early June, Sok Mao's older sister decided that she could no longer afford to take care of her, and Sok Mao moved to a wooden shack, also in Meanchey district, to live with her widowed aunt, who sells vegetables in a nearby market.
Sok Mao has put on weight in the face since she left Prey Sar.
She said the highlight of the past month had been a trip to the Sorya Shopping Centre, where she rode an escalator for the first time.
"I do not miss my mother," she said in an interview. "She told me not to, so I won't. But yes, maybe if she said I was allowed to miss her - I would miss her very, very much."
She said she did miss the prison chief, Chat Sineang, who she said was very kind to her while she lived there.
She added: "I am happy to be on the outside. I can play now whenever I want to, and be free from all the fighting of the prisoners and guards always saying bad words to each other."