When I was 15-years old, I travelled to Cambodia and Vietnam as part of a global conference my dad was invited to attend. We started off the trip in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, where I lost myself in the pursuit for fake Nike’s, Chanel and pretty much every high-brand product you can think of.
From the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh, we moved on to rustic Cambodia, which was a little bit confronting for a 15-year old girl whose only worry in life was not seeing Justin Bieber in concert. Arriving in Cambodia was the pinnacle of culture shock. We were escorted from the airport in a Mercedes Benz and driven to our mansion of a hotel… which was surrounded by slum-like communities. This was the first moment I had witnessed the juxtaposition of two completely different worlds right in front of me, wealth, and poverty.
My own pictures taken on the trip
But a lot has changed since I was there in 2012, 6 years ago. Back then the poverty rate was around 20%, but as a result of government expenditure and foreign intervention Cambodia has now attained lower middle-income status with a poverty level of 13.5%. It is now the sixth fastest-growing economy in the world! Who would have thought huh!?
Whilst poverty continues to fall in Cambodia, the vast majority of families who escaped poverty did so by a small margin. Around 4.5 million people remain near-poor, vulnerable to falling back into poverty when exposed to economic and other external shocks. Keep in mind that this means that 4.5 million Cambodians are living on only $2.30 a day… that wouldn’t even buy a bottle of water in Australia!
But something that hasn’t changed is Cambodia’s high level of child labour. Have you ever been approached by a child trying to sell you something, on the border of tears, in a third-world country? I have. The girl pictured below came up to me as we were about to leave and broke down into a pool of tears.
At 15 years old I felt helpless and my first instinct was to reach into my purse and pull out a note. But I am writing this to tell you to resist that instinct. No matter how strongly you feel.
Now before you jump to conclusions accusing me of being a heartless stone-cold stinge, hear me out. Due to the dire circumstances Cambodians live in, parents feel pressured to force their children on to the streets to beg for money. Even if they do bring a small amount of change home, the problem is that they will most likely never receive an education as a result. Although most travelers mean well, their support perpetuates an often corrupt and abusive environment, damaging the very children they are trying to help.
36.1% of Cambodian children are involved in child labour… that is one in three children! That is a dumbfounding number! Children aged between 5 and 14 years in Cambodia engage in the worst forms of child labour, including forced labour in brick making and commercial sexual exploitation, sometimes as a result of human trafficking. All the products you can see in the graphic below are produced by child labour in Cambodia.
Cambodian parents state poverty as being one of the main reasons they force their children into child labour. So… if Cambodia’s poverty rate has reduced to almost half of what it was in 2012, why are so many children still being forced out onto the streets and into the worst forms of child labour? There are three reasons as to why this is still happening; urbanisation fueling child labour, unchanging behaviours, and limited access to education.
Cambodia’s newfound economic growth has supported rapid urbanisation. Whilst normally this would be a great thing for any developing country, the issue for Cambodia lies behind WHO they get to construct these buildings. And you’ve probably guessed it already, yes, children. A closer look into local brick production reveals the country’s rapid urbanisation is driving one of the most common forms of modern slavery. Children who work at brick production facilities are often exposed to hazardous levels of heat, dust and carbon monoxide, which can lead to death. The need to remove children from these hazardous industries and into school has never been greater.
The next issue surrounds the parent’s inability to change their behaviour. A majority of Cambodian families might be living just above the poverty line due to the money they gain from their children’s labour. Parents find it difficult to create alternate ways to earn money, when they already have a perfectly good option. Did you know that parents have been caught breaking their children’s limbs to increase their “value” as beggars? It’s horrifying i know. It is this cycle which is the hardest to break. The International Labour Organisation has responded to this issue by pioneering a livelihood scheme (IPEC) to help decrease, and eventually eliminate, a family’s reliance on its children for income.
Due to challenges in accessing basic education and the absence of a compulsory education requirement, children remain vulnerable to involvement in the worst forms of child labour. Schools themselves present barriers to learning. An estimated 24% of Cambodia’s primary schools do not offer the full six grades. Despite primary school attendance increasing significantly to around 85%, as a result of the government’s Child Friendly School’s initiative, fewer than half of children enrolled in Grade 1 are expected to complete their primary education. This number is even lower in secondary school, with only 45% of students attending. In many cases, children are pulled out of school to earn an income for the family. Without an education, Cambodian children will never be given the opportunity to achieve greater things or improve their country.
So, if we can’t give directly to these vulnerable children, what can we do? There are tonnes of charities in Cambodia dedicated to enriching the lives of children. Charities such as the Cambodian Children’s Fund, Hope for Cambodian Children and Cambodian Children’s Trust all support incredibly worthy causes. But I know for myself, that this answer alone didn’t satisfy me, I also wanted to be able to directly help these kids while I was in the country. The solution to this is to consciously buy from adults only. In the long run, only buying souvenirs from adults will reduce the pressure they feel to force their children into labour as they will be reaping in the cash instead. Imagine the difference we could make if everyone did this.
This is why tourists must stay strong and refuse to support these practices which pull Cambodian children out of school, robbing them of any semblance of childhood, education, and a chance at improving their lives. And this isn’t just the case in Cambodia, this occurs in virtually every developing country. Ever seen Slumdog Millionaire?
Take this article as a reminder to always be conscious of your actions while you are in a foreign country. We never really do know the hidden consequences of our actions until the veil is lifted.