Street Children in Cambodia
The streets are home to too many
children in Cambodia, who work
to survive and for whom education is a dream for which they see
little relevance. (Photo from
Today education is the most important way to
transform people and all societies to live in harmony and peace rooted
in justice. Conversely, education is one of the most dangerous ways to
control and limit people’s understanding about their reality of life,
their thinking, etc. These problems emanate from history, economics,
business, technology, modern lifestyles and the inflow of foreign
cultures through the media and various forms of entertainment.
But why does it happen? Who creates and controls the curriculum?
No one has an answer because the system and structure has guided
Cambodian society to move in this direction itself.
Since 1998, the Cambodian government has given everyone a chance to go
to school, from primary school until high school with free school fees.
It has been a great opportunity for us to acquire and develop our
knowledge through formal education. We have found though that during our
classes the education quality we get seems limited for some reason so we
need to pay money for extra classes. It can help us better understand
the lessons and give us more clarity about the subject. It is a similar
situation for some schools in both towns and cities: students have to
pay for extra classes and pay some support for the teacher to really
take care of them during study time.
What happens though for children who come from families from the middle
class and especially the lower class?
Some people leave their village to find a job or make a small business
and live in the city. How can they afford an education for their
children in this kind of situation? Some families can survive but still
need their children to help run their business after school, but other
children drop out of school because of the need to financially
contribute to their family’s income.
Then there are some homeless people who can’t find a job or make any
business. They survive by living with their kids along the street, in
the park, next to buildings, in front of other people’s home, etc. Then,
instead of studying, the children help their families make money by
selling stuff, such as food, and collecting garbage, begging for money
along the street, and some find part-time work in restaurants. They thus
become child laborers, and some are street children. They lose their
childhood and a chance to attain some knowledge at a very young age. By
law, all of this work is illegal, and, in reality, it is violence
against children. Many groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
try to help them get out of this cycle of poverty, but sometimes our
government and other people seem to never notice these problems, or
perhaps they are aware of them but can do nothing to help because they
believe this issue is not their business.
Responding to this problem, however, is the Cambodia YMCA in the capital
of Phnom Penh which has created the project Education and Support for
Vulnerable and Exploited Cambodian Street Children. The aim of the
project is to improve the life prospects of street and working children
and young people in the city’s slums by empowering disadvantaged
families to overcome barriers that prevent their children from having
access to education and other essential services for their safety,
well-being and development.
The project will register 90 vulnerable street children—50 children by
September 2012 and 40 children by June 2013—to receive three hours of
daily classes in Khmer, English, numeracy and life skills education
based on the YMCA curriculum for 180 days. This non-formal education
program is designed to equip the children with the requisite skills to
integrate into mainstream education. The children are provided with
stationary, learning materials and nutritional support. Street children
from slum communities who have achieved the required admission standards
through this informal learning will be integrated into local schools and
will be supported with educational kits, meal allowances, uniforms and
the secured commitments of teachers to ensure no informal fees will be
demanded from the children. In this way, the children are assured that
they can continue with their studies without the risk of dropping out
due to financial pressures. At least 35 street children were integrated
in local schools in October 2012, and another 25 children will be
integrated by June 2013.
During the times I visited this project and involved myself with it, I
found it a bit hard for us to give the children a clear understanding of
how important education is for them because most of their thinking every
day is about how to make money. Even sometimes during the class, the
children would ask permission from their teachers to go back home as it
was time for them to collect garbage and sell things to make money for
their families. This choice means that the first occupation for them is
finding money and their second priority is education. Although some
children were a little bit overage to begin their studies, their level
of understanding, however, was very limited. Even some children couldn’t
use a pencil correctly at the age of 7 to 15 years old.
How then can we help and decrease this problem in our society?
In addition to help from us and many other NGOs that are providing an
informal education, one other important ingredient that is really needed
is cooperation from their families to encourage their children to return
to their studies and to end their dependence on their children to make
money for them. Otherwise, it is not easy to change the child’s concept
of education and its importance in their lives. In this way, they can
start their childhood over again even if it’s a bit late for them, but
naturally, it is better than not having any childhood at all and missing
their opportunity for an education and the better life it offers.
* Sopharak Hem, a Cambodian participant of the 2012 School of Peace
(SOP) conducted by Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF) in Bangalore,
India, is an ICF staff member in Phnom Penh.