TOURISM and the development of Sihanoukville’s port may have generated employment opportunities and wealth for many of the city’s population, but it has increased its social problems. One such problem is the rise in children living and working on the street.
“From our activities we have seen an increase in street children,” says Eve Saosarin, director of M’lop Tapang.
The organisation, which means in the shade or protection of the Tapang or umbrella tree, was established in 2003 when Eve Saosarin and co-founder Maggie Eno helped a group of street kids who were sheltering under a Tapang tree on one of Sihanoukville’s beaches.
Now it employs 150 staff across the province reaching out to more than 3,000 children.
Eve Saosarin attributes the rise in the number of street children to the economic development of Cambodia’s main beach resort town that continues to draw people from the surrounding countryside looking for work.
“They come to search for a better life and end up in the slums,” he says. “Of course the slums increase. The number of street children also increases. Most of these families are moving from other provinces.”
M’lop Tapang has nine centres in Sihanoukville, in addition to its team of social workers who work in the street communities.
“We have two types of activities: centre-based activities and outreach work,” says Eve Saosarin. “When we start working with [street children] we assess their needs and then deliver our services to meet their needs.”
The main complex is a day-care centre which provides both formal and informal education, counselling, leisure activities, hygiene education and healthcare, as well as food to 300 children each day. M’lop Tapang also runs two night centres, an arts centre, a drop-in centre mainly for drug users, two vocational training centres and two shelters in the slums.
The organisation’s many outreach activities include a mobile library programme and a back to school programme.
“We work from babies to age 25,” says Eve Saosarin. “We have a holistic approach. Not all children need the same things. Our services are designed to meet their different needs.”
Despite all these facilities, the organisation’s philosophy is based on prevention rather than cure.
“The idea is to work with the families so if they have any problem our social workers can find the best way to deal with the problem so they don’t have to send their kids into the streets,” he says. “Also our social workers go around the communities every day to encourage families to send their kids to school.”
Often the social workers encounter opposition from parents who do not see the value of their children’s education.
“Sometimes they even refuse our services, because if the children come to our centre they will lose their income,” he says. “It is our challenge to stop them working on the streets so you have to have some other ways to help them.”
Children who live and work on the street are vulnerable to abuse and often are deprived of their basic rights, such as education and medical care. Another problem is potential sexual abuse from tourists seeking underage sex.
In order to counteract this M’lop Tapang joined the ChildSafe network in 2006. It trains tuk tuk drivers to keep an eye out for children in danger of abuse.
“We advertise our hotline number everywhere so that people know that if they see anything unsafe or dangerous to the children, they can call the hotline number,” he says.
Such work does not come cheap. It costs US$900,000 per year to run M’lop Tapang’s programmes with the money coming from more than 20 donors.
“Our goal is get them back to their families and at the same time while they are with us they are safe,” he says. “Then they have a positive choice and an opportunity to build their futures.”
Part of the organisation’s philosophy is to provide an alternative income for the parents of the children so they are not reliant upon their children for income.
“We train the families, mostly single and HIV-positive mothers, to make bags for tourists so they can work at home and make an income and be responsible to send their kids to school,” he says. “If they join the programme we have an agreement to send the kids to school and to make good products so we can sell them.”
The goods are sold to tourists from the organisation’s shop in Sihanoukville. Even if the parents drop out of the programme, M’lop Tapang offers them an umbrella branch of hope.
“We never give up on any families,” says Eve Saosarin. “We have some very difficult families that do not fully cooperate with us. When we see them, they hate us, but we never give up.”