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
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 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
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,"
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
"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."