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Children of a lost generation

Children of a lost generation

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

friends.

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

poor.

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

village.

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

alternative.

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

different.

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.

Who are

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.

A

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.

Monivong

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

train station.

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.

Child

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.

He lives

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.

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