Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Vocational training only the start of girls' struggle

Vocational training only the start of girls' struggle

Vocational training only the start of girls' struggle


An ever-increasing number of Cambodian girls end up on the streets. But as Anette

Marcher found out, future prospects are dim even for those who escape street

life and make it through a vocational training program. There is just not much work

to be found for them afterwards.

Seventeen-year-old Soeun is one of the lucky ones. Less than a year ago she was selling

oranges - and occasionally her body - in the parks near the Bassac squatter area.

Now, she is looking forward to starting a small tailor and home decorating shop together

with her younger sister in their home town of Siem Reap. If all goes according to

plan, the girls should be in business in six months or so.

Soeun's story is really a typical one - abandoned by her family six years ago with

two younger siblings to take care of. Eking out a precarious living in the streets

of Phnom Penh. Picked up by a street children organization. Fed, rehabilitated and

educated through vocational training.

The big difference between her and many other street girls is that Soeun has a realistic

opportunity of actually finding profitable and attractive work after she finishes

the training program.

As an ever increasing number of Cambodian girls end up on the streets, the training

and employment possibilities that would re-integrate them into society still remain

extremely meager.

Whereas their male counterparts can choose between short courses in haircutting,

electricity, mechanics and a variety of other trades, the girls are generally left

with learning basic cooking or sewing skills. Trades that offer little employment

opportunities in overloaded markets or lead to underpaid labor in factories, often

under sweatshop-like conditions.

These discouraging prospects are revealed in a recent study by the Street Children

Task Force focusing on training needs and employment possibilities for street kids

in Cambodia. With the country's economic situation hopefully about to take off, the

survey set out to asses current vocational training and explore new employment areas.

To a certain extent the findings in the recently published report can be applied

to all young Cambodians with limited or no education. However, the situation of street

children - more than 10,000 in Phnom Penh alone and increasing every day - is made

worse by a number of socially related problems, thus making street kids even harder

to integrate into the working society.

Through interviews with local authorities, professionals in various trades and former

street children, the survey found that street boys have many more opportunities than

girls. Except for carpentry, the skills they already learn at training centers -

haircutting, electricity, electronics and mechanics - offer ample employment possibilities

and the kids are often better trained than their grown-up competitors.

Also, new services like watch mending, welding, plumbing and other construction skills

are beginning to provide opportunities for the boys.

For the girls, however, prospects are much dimmer. While a three month haircutting

course will enable a boy to set up his own little business, six months of training

in cooking or sewing may not get the girl anywhere but into a sweatshop. At the same

time, there are plenty of other women offering the same services, and private workshops

are increasingly providing sewing training as garment factories spring up all over

the country.

The same goes for possible new activities for the girls such as laundry services,

baby-sitting or nursing assistants. Competition is fierce or demand is limited.

"Finding employment for the girls is a huge problem. The girls were at the center

of our minds throughout the whole survey. We kept thinking that we had to find something

for the girls, but there just wasn't very much," says Stephan Magnaldi who headed

the study.

He points out that street kids often lose out in a competitive market.

"Street children are burdened with a stigma. They are perceived as a bit strange

and often rejected by employers. Therefore they generally have to be more competitive,"

says Magnaldi.

This became clear when the research team explored the possibility of teaching jewelry-making

to the kids. After three interviews where shop owners "did not show enthusiasm"

for hiring former street children because of "preconceived ideas," the

investigation was abandoned.

One solution could be to teach the girls the same trades as the boys. This has been

tried before, but for unknown reasons the girls often end up offering their skills

for free or not using them at all.

"Work in Cambodia is not sexually divided and it is not uncommon to see women

working in building sites. So I don't know why the vocational training of girls in

traditional male trades apparently does not work. Maybe it's an 'inner work', something

in the girls' thinking that stops them," explains Magnaldi.

The way out for the girls therefore seems to be even more education. While boys can

learn sufficient skills in a few months, girls may have to go through more than a

year of training before they are able to find satisfactory work.

This is exactly what Soeun is doing. After six months of learning basic sewing skills,

she went on to an advanced sewing course with the women and children organization

Nyemo in Phnom Penh. There she is taught not only to create simple shirts and trousers,

but complicated patterns, interior decorating, maintenance of sewing equipment, and

management of a shop.

After completing her training, Soeun is fully capable of setting up a business that

offers specialized services of a rare quality. Her 16-year-old sister who is currently

doing a basic sewing course will help her and the shop will be set up with the help

of a "micro loan."

"I don't like working in groups and I don't want to go to a factory and work

in bad conditions for a Chinese boss. I chose to learn sewing because I wouldn't

like to go and work in a foreigner's house. Instead I want to do something that can

help my whole family," says Soeun.

According to Nyemo coordinator Simone Herault, extensive training and education is

essential for the girls' and women's future opportunities.

"Many women who can cook are happy to work for food and lodging and no salary.

To really empower them it is therefore necessary to teach them better skills, to

raise the quality of their work so they can do something different from what everyone

else offers. Of course that may take longer time than for the boys," says Herault.

Nyemo's training center thus acts as a form of secondary education to the training

that street children receive with other organizations. Out of the 86 people that

have been or are in training at the center, 37 are street children, the vast majority


Choosing between a catering or a furnishing course, the girls virtually go through

a comprehensive apprenticeship. On the second floor of the center, they create bed

and furniture covers, curtains, lamp shades, pillows and blankets in rich, colorful

fabrics. Some products are sold in the shop downstairs, others exported, and a certain

amount is made to order.

At lunch time, the Nyemo restaurant - decorated with products from upstairs - fills

up as customers enjoy a preset three-course meal composed and prepared by the girls

in the kitchen. On the day when the Post visited, the menu consisted of a mixed salad,

Basque chicken and creme caramel. The restaurant also does breakfast and catering

for receptions and banquets in the evening.

And the strategy of extended and comprehensive education works. All of the 46 girls

and women who have so far completed training have found good, well-paid jobs through

Nyemo's own employment agency.

While Herault acknowledges that not many employment possibilities currently exist

for girls and women with limited education, she remains optimistic that they can

be created.

"We have to continuously invent new activities for the girls and identify new

niche services. It is necessary to look at the market and find out what is missing.

One possible example is production of glasses and plates. Today everything is imported

from Vietnam, but it can easily be produced by Cambodian women and girls too,"

Herault points out.

However, new ideas about work and employment are not likely to come from Cambodia's

large group of poorly or un-educated women and girls themselves - or from the boys,

for that matter. As the Street Children Task Force survey discovered, the kids generally

have very limited dreams about their future.

Out of 60 street boys questioned, the majority hoped for a future in haircutting,

electronics or mechanics - skills that they may have heard about from other street

children or became familiar with through street life. Only seven mentioned alternative

occupations such as acting, dancing and singing. One opted to become a translator.

And six wanted to continue their careers as waste pickers.

But for the 40 girls in the survey, future dreams seemed even less imaginative. Only

sewing and cooking were mentioned as favored trades. Seven answered that they simply

had no idea about what they wanted to do.

"There is a very big problem in terms of the children's own ideas about future

prospects. They only speak about examples of what they already know or see in the

street. And again this is particularly striking for the girls. This means that we

have to open up their minds and present them with options they would not think of

themselves," says Magnaldi.

Unfortunately those options seem hard to find. Especially since street children generally

have a very low level of education and at the same time need to see quick results

from their efforts in order not to lose interest. To a large extent this rules out

job possibilities in the recovering tourism industry, since these often require knowledge

of at least one foreign language.

Also, finding suitable activities has to take into consideration that many street

children wish to be reunited with their families in the countryside where employment

opportunities are different from big cities like Phnom Penh and Battambang. The research

team therefore dedicated a large amount of time to investigating this field.

Obviously, agricultural skills such as growing vegetables, raising animals or fertilizer

production turned out to be interesting possibilities. One obstacle does however


"These children definitely have no access to land. We tried to introduce the

idea of farming cooperatives but it wasn't well received by the children," says


While the training that Nyemo currently offers is mainly directed towards towns or

larger cities, Herault believes that educating and empowering Cambodian women and

girls is a vital part of developing the country.

"In my opinion, women are a better investment than men. Educating a woman is

an investment that will benefit a whole family, while men tend to spend their new-found

incomes on themselves alone," says Herault.

"Unfortunately, in a archaic society like Cambodia, women's needs and interests

rank lower than most men's."


  • ‘Education’ a priority traffic-law penalty

    A top National Police official on June 21 neither rejected nor confirmed the authenticity of a leaked audio message, which has gone viral on social media, on a waiver of fines for a number of road traffic-related offences. General Him Yan, deputy National Police chief in

  • Pursat Ford assembly plant opens

    The Kingdom’s first Ford assembly plant was inaugurated on June 16 in Pursat province amid rising demand for brand-new vehicles among Cambodians. The facility is seen as a game changer for the domestic automobile industry, which could bring a wave of investors seeking to cash

  • Siem Reap’s $18M zoo said to educate public, help wildlife

    Angkor Wildlife and Aquarium Co Ltd has invested $18 million in a zoo in Siem Reap province, which will be opened in October to educate and promote animal conservation as well as attract national and international tourists. Currently, the Angkor Wildlife and Aquarium is building the

  • Volunteer scheme to foster ‘virtuous’ humanitarian spirit

    A senior education official said volunteer work contributes to solidarity and promotes a virtuous humanitarian spirit among the youth and communities. Serei Chumneas, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, made the comment during the opening of a training programme called “

  • $50B infrastructure plan en route

    The government’s upcoming $50 billion,10-year infrastructure master plan will provide tremendous investment opportunities for domestic and foreign entities, transport experts and economists say. Minister of Public Works and Transport Sun Chanthol revealed the plan to Japanese ambassador to Cambodia Masahiro Mikami on June 15. At

  • Chinese firms unveil preliminary results on metro, monorail for capital

    Minister of Public Works and Transport Sun Chanthol and representatives from China Road and Bridge Corp (CRBC) and its parent company, the state-owned China Communications Construction Co Ltd (CCCC), met on June 24 for talks on results of the firms’ preliminary study on a potential metro