A child makeup model fiddles with her fake eyelashes at Sapor's modeling school in Phnom Penh. The kids earn 2,500 riel per two-hour shift. Families enjoy the extra income, but some community leaders say the work is pure exploitation.
In a room filled with mirrors on every side, eight girls sit in a row, their faces
smeared for hours at a time with dry powders, wet creams, mascaras, eyeliners and
big fake eyelashes.
They work as live makeup mannequins for students in a school of cosmetology.
As young as 10 and typically no older than 18, the girls work two to six hours a
day in Sapor's beauty school in Phnom Penh's Chaktomuk district.
"Students could learn faster and better only when they had enough practice,"
said the school's manager, Peou Sopheap, explaining how he came up with the idea
of hiring children as models.
The children come from different parts of the city. Pheap said he found some at the
slums of Chbar Ampov and others wandering outside the railway station. Some of the
children are orphans; others have parents but are very poor, he said.
Each semester, he said he recruits about 30 girls to work as models; over the four
years he has managed the school, he has hired about 120 girls, he said.
Sopheap said hiring poor children instead of adults served as a kind of humanitarian
work to help lift the families' financial condition.
Although Sopheap said he is trying help the girls, and that he encourages them to
go to school before or after work, others argue that hiring children is pure exploitation.
"If the company manager thinks that he takes part in helping the street children,
he is absolutely mistaken because the future of the children can never get developed
even when they got some money for the moment," said Tho Thary, deputy director
of Cambodian Volunteers for Community Development. "If we analyze his motive,
he is just using them as tools for his students to learn make up. It is for the benefit
of his school, not the kids."
An official from the Ministry of Social Affairs who asked not to be identified said
that if the children are simply acting as makeup models, it doesn't violate any law
because it is not a very heavy job.
"The problem," the official said, "is we do not know what they do
to the children beyond that, especially when the authorities are not informed."
Uy Sophal, program director of Children's Support Foundation, said he was concerned
about the children's health, but he would not condemn a manager whose motive was
to help street children.
"Children are too young to think carefully before making decisions. They do
not know if the job will affect their health or not in the future," he said.
Sopheap said he didn't seek permission from government departments before recruiting
the children because he did not think it was necessary.
"I think if I don't ask them to come work here, they not only cannot go to school,
they might also become problems for society. The young girls might fall into the
sex industry ... and then they have no more choices."
The children make 2,500 riel per two-hour session. The fee is paid by the students.
If they work three sessions a day, they can earn 7,500 riel, or possibly more with
"I am very happy to get this job because I can earn money," said Srey Noch,
15, who said 7,500 riel is a lot of money for her family.
"I give all the money to my mom so that she can buy food and pay for everyday
Srey Noch said she hoped to save some money in her "pig" - or piggy bank
- so that one day she could return to school.
Srey Noch lives near the Phnom Penh railway station in an area known as Kdan Pi.
She said she left school at age 12 because her family couldn't afford it. Her father
drives a moto taxi. He alone carried full responsibility for feeding his family of
eight until she began work two years ago. Her two brothers are unemployed and four
younger siblings attend school.
Srey Noch has a beautiful young face that seems younger than her years. She is thin
and short. There was never enough food to eat for all the members of her family,
she explained. Like all the models, her eyebrows are shaved thin and chopped at the
ends and her hair is tied up neatly away from her face.
"They are usually required to have their eyebrows shaved, otherwise it wouldn't
look nice when I draw the eyebrow because it is too thick. The end parts were cut
off because it gives more flexibility in changing the shapes. It can give us chances
to try different drawing styles," explained Boreth, 20, as she carefully applied
party makeup on Lin, a 13-year-old model.
Lin said some of her friends have asked her why her eyebrows looked so strange but
she didn't answer them.
Srey Noch said it was "kind of scary" when she went to work the first day.
"I felt I was very ugly at first. My eyebrows were not complete. Old people
near my house and my friends asked me what happened."
Srey Noch doesn't like the fake eyelashes much, either.
"I really don't want to wear them because they turn me into another person.
I look so old and I feel uncomfortable. But this little sacrifice is nothing as long
as I can earn money for my family."
The International Labor Organization states that children older than 14 are allowed
to do light work under the condition that the job will not harm their health and
While health complaints appeared rare - only one girl at the school complained of
itchy skin - and there was no conclusive evidence that the makeup used was hurting
the girls' skin, Thav Sothvy, a dermatologist at Calmette Hospital, said that children
should not use a lot of makeup,
The school's makeup teacher Ly Siv Teang, 27, said the cosmetics used at the school
should not cause skin problems. She added that it is in her interest to make sure
that the models have healthy skin.
Still, Srey Noch worries. Before getting on her bicycle and riding back home to Kdan
Pi, Srey Noch considered a question: Would she rather continue as a makeup model
or work as a waitress for the same 2,500 riel salary?
"I would choose to work as a waitress," she said.