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Giving the majority a stronger voice

Giving the majority a stronger voice

Nine-year-old Bun Saory studies with other children at a CCASVA temporary shelter.

Children addressed the National Assembly May 30 for the first time. Street kids,

school students, abuse victims, child laborers, and children from rural areas told

lawmakers what they wanted to see changed, in a unique exercise to mark International

Children's Day.

By Caroline Green

Since his mother died, nine year-old Bun Saory has lived on the streets near the

Olympic Market with his father and 11 siblings. On a normal day he would be collecting

cardboard for resale, but for the moment he is off the streets living at a temporary

shelter run by a local NGO.

"I am happy now because I have food and a place to sleep and I can study,"

Saory said. "I'd like to be a teacher one day."

Saory is fortunate, but for numerous children living on the city's streets, International

Children's Day on June 1 held little meaning. It was simply another day spent begging

for food, polishing cars for 500 riel, collecting garbage, cleaning tourist's shoes

or trying to find enough money to buy glue.

Por Chantha has spent four years working the streets as a facilitator and counselor

with Cambodian Children Against Starvation and Violence Association (CCASVA), a local

NGO. CCASVA estimates more than 10,000 children live on Phnom Penh's streets. Many

came here from the provinces in search of food.

"There are more street children than when I started, and that is because the

situation in Cambodia is not so good," said Chantha. "If they stay on the

street a long time their futures will be bad. The boys and girls are very important

for the nation: if they don't study, what will happen when they grow up?"

With more than half of Cambodia's population under 18, International Children's Day

takes on a special significance. The country ratified the Convention on the Rights

of the Child in 1992; ten years on it still labors under some of Asia's worst statistics.

Cambodia has the highest infant mortality rate in Southeast Asia: 90 per 1,000 live

births, according to figures from Save the Children Norway. The same NGO states that

60,000 children have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS, while an estimated 35 percent of

sex workers are under 18 years, over 5,000 in Phnom Penh alone.

The NGO Committee on the Rights of the Child (NGOCRC) is a network of 34 NGOs working

with children around the country. Its survey asked children what they thought were

their most pressing problems.

Cambodian children told NGOCRC that they were most concerned with child labor and

trafficking, the plight of street children, domestic violence, HIV/AIDS, and child

sex workers. They also spoke about young domestic servants, of whom there are 100,000.

Fourteen-year-old Lay Ratt-ana was a domestic servant at age ten. In May she represented

Cambodia at the UN's extraordinary congress on youth.

She said that the trafficking of children, the growing problem of AIDS, and the lack

of education were all difficulties suffered by Cambodian children. But the worst

problem was poverty.

And observers agree: many rural families are so poor their children are forced to

leave home to earn money instead of going to school. Yim Po, executive director of

the Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children's Rights (CCPCR), said many children

were unable to find good jobs and ended up on the street sniffing glue or using drugs

such as yaba and amphetamines. Some will become sex workers.

"Families are very poor so young girls are sold to be prostitutes or sex workers,"

Po said. "Relatives and friends also cheat kids and sell them to brothels, and

every day there are rape cases of children under 15."

Srey Oun's mother sold her to a brothel owner at the Russian Market when she was

only 12. She escaped and lives temporarily at a CCPCR shelter.

"I worked in a brothel for two or three years. The owner forced my friend to

have sex with the clients and said if she refused he would not feed her. Then he

tied her up, but she escaped and brought the police," said Oun. "I was

very afraid but they brought me here [to the shelter] and now I get hairdressing

skills and an education."

On May 30 Srey Oun and Lay Rattana joined 43 other street kids, school students,

victims of abuse, child laborers, and children from rural areas at the National Assembly

to tell lawmakers their recommendations for judicial and policy changes.

NGOCRC organized the event to mark International Children's Day. It was the first

time children have addressed the assembly. Among their 13 recommendations were the

creation of a children's ombudsman, elimination of government corruption, enforcement

of birth registrations, creation of a juvenile justice system, and the implementation

of adoption laws.

Street children enjoy literacy puzzles.

Targeting lawmakers was a pointed effort, since many NGOs blame them for not sufficiently

advancing children's rights.

"The government is not doing enough to help children," said a child rights'

advisor at local human rights NGO Licadho. "We need more commitment from them

and local authorities. We want action not just talking."

CCPCR's Po echoes that. He feels the increasing numbers of schools will improve things.

"People are becoming aware of child trafficking and prostitution," he said.

"Now there is a law for protecting children. The situation is better than it

was ten years ago."

The adults involved in promoting children's rights acknowledge that children will

lead the charge for government and community change.

"In the future I think children will force the government to help them get better

lives, like children in developed countries have," said CCASVA executive director

Phok Bunroeun.

Child advocate Srey Oun, 15

Children like Rattana are already working to make that happen.

"Sometimes I dream that children will be able to express their ideas, receive

their rights, and that all their problems like child labor and exploitation will

be eliminated," she said. "But that is a far-off dream. We have a long

way to go."

'Sometimes I dream that children will be able to express their ideas, receive

their rights, and that all their problems like child labor and exploitation will

be eliminated - but that is a far-off dream.' - Lay Rattana, 14.

What children want:

Recommendations by 45 children from across Cambodia to the nation's lawmakers May

30 were:

  • Increase the national budget for education, health, social affairs and protection.


  • Create a children's ombudsman so children and victims can receive protection.


  • Set up a juvenile justice system for children.


  • Ratify ILO Convention 182 concerning the prohibition of the worst forms of child



  • Implement adoption laws.


  • Increase the age of criminality.


  • Push for law enforcement in order to eliminate violence to children and domestic



  • Enforcement of law for child abusers and child traffickers.


  • Elimination of judicial and police corruption.


  • Separate incarcerated children from the adults and put them in rehabilitation



  • Enforce birth registration for all children.


  • Encourage education on rights of the child for judges, law enforcers, government

    officials, teachers, prison officials and health and social staff.


  • Listen to children's voices when drafting laws.


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