Liz Gilliland focuses on Phnom Penh's growing problem of youngsters
living rough on the streets.
A filthy child dressed only in shorts
crouched behind a large box. He was playing hide and seek with his
Pen doesn't know how old he is, though he looks about fourteen.
He came to Phnom Penh with his parents six years ago, he thinks. His family
didn't have the money to send him to school, but he says he doesn't want to go
anyway. He went to school once in the Kompong Cham province. He claims the
teacher beat him.
Pen, his mother, and his father are beggars. The boy
earns 100 to 500 riel a day, sometimes nothing. Grinning broadly, he explained
why he never bathes: "More money from customers." He occasionally resorts to
paper scavenging, 500 riel for two kg.
Pen and his parents have no home.
They sleep in temples. The monks distribute food bought from donations to the
Pen survives on a diet of rice and whatever he can find or beg on
the street. Surprisingly, he seems to be a happy, clever, and relatively healthy
child. He says he would rather stay in Phnom Penh than return to his
Pen is part of a large and rapidly growing population segment in
Phnom Penh: street children. According to NGO estimates, there are from five to
ten thousand children living on the streets, without support or any other
Life on the streets is exciting for some of them - no
supervision, lots of freedom, a little danger and intrigue. Though it appears
that all the children do is play on the sidewalk, the reality is
Ten-year-old Chea wanders slowly through an alley, a plastic
bag slung over his shoulder. He is looking for cans, because six cans means 100
riel. The sick-looking boy is earning money for food. He hopes to find twenty
cans, but there is lots of competition from other scavengers.
these children? World Vision's (WVI) Street Children's Center estimates 80
percent of them come from rural provinces, and 20 percent from poor transitory
families. WVI reports that there are five times as many boys on the streets as
girls. The girls are often needed back in the village to work at home.
1993 UNICEF survey states that 70 percent have lost at least one parent, 60
percent have little contact with their families, and 25 percent fled violence at
home. Almost all say they've been physically or sexually abused. Forty percent
are on the streets day and night.
According to WVI's Tony Culnane many
of the children follow a similar daily schedule, mixing begging and scavenging.
Most of them spend the day in the central market area, near Monivong Blvd, the
train station, two bus stations, restaurants, hotels and bars.
Blvd is a popular hangout at lunchtime and after in the evening. The kids'
favorite targets for begging are tourists.
The children use the
afternoons to scavenge, swim in the river, play cards or marbles, or rest in the
shade. Around dinnertime they beg outside restaurants, the more expensive the
better. After eleven they move to the night club areas.
Those who have
no homes often sleep in small groups for protection, huddled by the security
grates of store fronts, under trees near Wat Phnom, the Royal Palace or at the
Children face real danger on the streets. Older boys often
rob and beat the younger ones. Adults form children into gangs and demand a
commission of their earnings from begging, or turn them to crime.
prostitution has also reached the streets. The kidnapping and sale of young
girls is no longer uncommon.
As AIDS awareness grows, so has the demand
for virgins. Brothel owners will pay $200 to a parent or supplier for a 'new'
child, reports the Street Children's Center.
A small child walks into the
middle of oncoming traffic, tightly clutching an empty motor oil can. He is
barefoot, his hair dusty with dirt. The boy is going to the central market to
beg for food. He is seven years old, and too scared to speak.
with his uncle who feeds him on the days he doesn't earn any money. The boy
earns 100 to 300 riel a day begging. He approaches only Khmers because he can't
speak English. His eyes are vacant, lost. He has all the freedom a child could
want, and absolutely no opportunities.