I worry about what the future holds for girls from poor families in Cambodia.
I’ve had concern for a few years now about one little girl in particular, but the more I’ve been exposed to during this visit, the more that concern has spread.
The particular girl I’m talking about is someone I’ve met a number of times as she works on the streets of one of Cambodia’s tourist towns.
In conversation with her the first time I met her, I learned her Khmer name – but let’s call her Socheata, which is not her real name. For ease of engagement with foreigners, she mostly goes by a Western name she has adopted that I also won’t use here.
Socheata was only about six-years-old when I first met her out selling trinkets late at night, bantering and flirting with tourists.
Through repeat trips to Cambodia, I’ve seen her each time I’ve been here and she’s also met a number of my friends. Socheata works a popular tourist strip and seeing her in the past few weeks, I could see how much she has grown up from the little girl I first met.
She’s so bright, witty and multi-lingual that with the right education and opportunities, this girl and many others like her would have all the potential to secure a good job in a rapidly-developing Cambodia.
But what does her future hold? The big worry is that as a nice looking young girl, she may be forced to graduate to something that makes more money than selling cheap trinkets to tourists. That’s something I will talk about a little more in a moment.
I’m told that it’s most likely that she has been put to work by her parents, but in some cases children are trafficked to work as child labour or in begging rings.
I do know from chatting to Socheata that she doesn’t go to school. She’s out selling from her little basket through the day and late into the night.
If there’s someone watching in the wings to protect her and keep an eye on the money she brings in, I’ve never noticed them.
The temptation to buy from or donate to these children is large, but the sad reality is that the money is not likely to benefit the child. Plus, child welfare agencies advise that giving money only encourages the people who have put the child to work, to keep them out of school and on the streets.
This is one small personal insight into a form of child exploitation that happens all too frequently here to children from underprivileged families.
Some of the other things that go on are even more sinister and destructive.
Sex trafficking and sex tourism are very high profile and they are grave crimes that must be addressed right across Asia and globally, but there’s another significant problem in Cambodia that attracts less media attention and it impacts a large number of young women.
It’s confronting to learn that children are being raped in rural areas – by single offenders and in gangs – and the overwhelming majority of offenders are not tourists, but local men and youths.
Many of the young female victims who are protected and supported by the agency where I’ve been volunteering, have not even reached their teenage years.
The reasons for these crimes seem complex and entrenched. I’ve read various pieces of research that make links to things such as the offender’s low education, previous history of being abused, alcohol, pornography as well as to gender roles and attitudes in society.
It’s hard to get concrete figures on the size of the problem because many cases go unreported due to the stigma and shame for victims. This means that many offenders go unpunished.
But there are NGOs that work to rescue and protect children, and some which provide legal support to victims and which help police to investigate.
This work is done in cooperation with the police and government agencies and hopefully in time, should help to strengthen victim support services, the criminal justice system and prevention measures.
I do worry more now about the underprivileged girls in rural Cambodia because of what I have learned during recent weeks as a volunteer.
But for the same reason, working among some of the good people who are at the frontline of tackling these issues day-in and day-out, it also gives you hope.