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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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