At a young age Phnom Penh's raggedy street ur- chins have already seen much of the
dark side of life. Phala, a ten-year old from Phnom Penh was left orphaned and homeless
after her mother died recently.
"I have nowhere to stay and just go to sleep whereever I am at the night. There
are mosquitoes and its noisy so it is not easy to sleep. Sometimes I sleep with a
group on the street or in a public area."
While many of the children are orphans like Phala, most have been abandoned or sent
on to the streets by their parents.
They roam Phnom Penh and other big towns scrounging money by begging, collecting
garbage, committing acts of petty crime and in some cases even selling their bodies.
Most disturbing for social and health officials is the growing exploitation of street
children by criminal gangs.
The mischievous looking urchins who crowd the doors of restaurants and hotels can
earn more than U.S. $40 dollars a month from begging but the money usually ends up
in the hands of the adults who control the small armies of under-age beggars.
"These children are not only becoming involved with video parlor gangs, card
players, alcoholics but there is a small sign of prostitution," said Benoit
Ducha-teau Arminjon, who runs the La Casa restaurant to raise funds for Krousar Thmey,
an NGO working with abandoned children.
But it is the growing number of children being sold for sex that social workers find
Samvada, who works with Unicef's Children in Especially Difficult Circumstanc-es
(CDEC) project said they were looking after one thirteen-year old girl who had been
working in Tuol Kork-Phnom Penh's notorious red light district-for three years.
The fatherless girl fled to Phnom Penh after she was raped by one of her neighbors.
Fear of contracting the deadly Aquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) has lead
to an increase in the demand for commercially-available virgins, especially among
Asian men, and social workers worry that this coupled with Cambodia's long years
of international isolation will make it a haven for foreign pedophiles.
"Pedophiles are going to be a major problem in Cambodia," said Margaret
de Monchy of CDEC.
"Pedophiles can be very difficult to recognize. Sometimes you can't tell when
somebody is being kind to the children and somebody who has a sexual interest in
"Sometimes Khmer parents don't understand this kind of person," she said.
The incidence of young girls being kidnapped and sold to Thailand's voracious sex
industry is also believed to be on the increase.
"We have approached the Ministry of Social Affairs and they said it is very
likely there are Khmer girls working in Thai bars but there is nothing they can do,"
But the threat does not only come from foreigners.DeMonchy said the children of poor
families who are sold like indentured servants to rich families are also very vulnerable
to such abuses.
"As part of the work they are expected to allow the people at the house do everything
sexual with them," she said
Until 1990, the State of Cambodia-run Rose Orphanage was the only refuge for homeless
children in Phnom Penh. But lack of funds and the poor state of the facility has
lead to many children returning to the streets.