STUCK ON GLUE
A young solvent abuser in Phnom Penh sniffs glue
from a plastic bag while keeping another in reserve.
Solvent abuse, a problem unknown in Cambodia till recent times, appears to have taken
a sudden grip among street kids in several towns across the country.
With the habit has come a host of health problems and crimes including physical and
sexual violence, theft, corruption and prostitution.
Local NGO "Friends" works closely with street kids and its workers report
an increasing trend of solvent abuse over the past year, mainly glue but also
However it cautions against a heavy-handed crack down on the users, saying that would
force the problem underground and does not recognize its complexity or the reasons
Friends coordinator Sebastien Marot said solvent abuse appeared to have been imported
from Thailand. "It is a sign that Cambodia is back in the global community - a
Marot said there is a general feeling of helplessness among NGOs working with street
kids because there is no easy way of dealing with the problem. It just had be dealt
with on a "case by case basis".
Solvents can give feelings of light-headedness, euphoria, hallucinations, feelings
of power and strength.
But a survey by the NGO of children involved in solvent abuse revealed that pleasure
was not a consideration for the vast majority of users, rather peer acceptance and
escapism were the primary motivations.
Marot said these results highlighted the difficulties in countering the problem which
was not simply one of self-indulgence but had its roots in disrupted family life
Half of the users questioned said they did it to imitate others in their group. Most
said they also used it as a form of escapism. Only one in every fifty kids said pleasure
was their sole reason for using it.
Sokran, 18, a user spoken to by the Post said Jan 5 that he sniffed glue as a form
of escape but then he added that it did not make him feel very good. "When I
sniff it it feels like one part of my body is being split and I feel frightened,"
he said gesturing to his chest.
But he showed no signs of giving up the habit. As he was being interviewed he kept
taking lungfuls of solvent vapor from a plastic bag and even after a friend took
the bag away he continued to raise his hand to his mouth and inhale without noticing
the bag was gone.
At the same time as Sokran was speaking another user started talking to one of the
Friend's workers and began to cry. Later the worker said the boy had told him he
was upset because "he had fallen in love with sniffing glue".
Marot said that they found there were generally three types of users. The first group
didn't need a lot of convincing or distractions to give up; the second group needed
a bit more effort; the third generally were not going to change for any reason.
Problems arising from using glue include direct physical consequences such as respiratory
problems but also the mind altering aspect can lead to violence.
One child helped by Friends had been repeatedly stabbed in the head with a screwdriver
after refusing to share his glue with a solvent-intoxicated friend.
For young women on the street the risks are equally horrendous.
Ly Sophat who works with the children said that if there were only one or two girls
in a group "they are put in the center for public use".
She cited one example of a 13-year-old girl who has been forced to take multiple
partners and is now suffering from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
The issues of STD, HIV and AIDS highlights the whole second tier level of problems
generated by solvent abuse - while one step away from direct results of solvent
abuse like respiratory or neurological damage, they promise to be far more lethal
given the spread of HIV/AIDS in Cambodia.
Marot said that they recognize the risks and, given that 30% of the children they
work with have had some experience with prostitution, HIV/AIDS education is a key
part of their work.
A large pool of poor, addicted and generally anonymous young people is not something
that has been missed by those involved in crime.
Marot said the street kids are often enticed into thieving and prostitution by gangs
or corrupt police and other individuals.
He said it was like the Chinese proverb: "The husband beats the wife, the wife
hits the son, the son kicks the dog, the dog bites the cat, the cat eats the goldfish.
"We help the goldfish. But we know who the husbands are," he said.
However he says there is little they can do about those preying on the children.
"As long as there is no political will we can do nothing about it. It is about
making quick money like everywhere else in the world."
It does raise the issue of how to deal with a problem that Marot says has now become
Heavy-handedness on the part of the authorities is not the way to deal with it, he
One child welfare worker blamed a well intentioned but flawed anti-solvent crackdown
in Poipet as the reason the habit has spread so quickly to other areas.
He said NGO's in the area put pressure on the police to deal with a group of about
10 glue sniffers in the town.
The police efforts were not subtle and the users simply moved to Battambang until
another crackdown saw them head to Phnom Penh.
From there the problem has spread further afield.
Marot believes the key is helping parents deal with the problem.
Their survey results showed that 50% of parents spoken to thought a beating would
cure their children of the habit.
"It is true that a lot of these problems come from a lack of authority in the
home but beatings only reinforces the cycle of violence and escapism.
He believed setting up small workshops teaching parenting skills would help solve
the problem but he did not believe it was up to outsiders to tell Cambodians how
they should bring up their children.
"As a foreigner I am not sure about Cambodia," he said. "It should
be run by the Cambodians themselves."