news

These kids deserve a childhood.

Rag picking children colouring with peer educator Devi at the World Vision Cambodia night outreach program. Photo credit: Ben Knop


By GABRIELLE BROPHY

I have just returned from Cambodia, a country of gentle and sincere people spread across a beautiful landscape. But behind the beauty, Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, with one third of the population living on less than $2 per day.

Fifteen years after the death of Pol Pot, Cambodia is still recovering from the horrific Khmer regime and genocide.

Rag picking children at the World Vision Cambodia night outreach program. Photo credit: Ben Knop

During my time there, I visited a street outreach project that has been set up to help children working as rag pickers. It isn’t run by teachers or social workers. Instead, the program is run by former street kids, and now volunteers, Devi*, 13, and Veht*, 14. The boys set up tarps and lanterns on the footpaths so street kids across Phnom Penh can learn about issues such as nutrition, hygiene, domestic violence, and ways to protect themselves from exploitation. They are also able to play and have the chance to be a child, even if only for an hour at a time. It was inspiring to see the children completely engaged by Veht’s use of a cartooned flipbook and posters.

While Veht eagerly taught the children, Devi set up a first aid kit and went about checking if any of them had wounds or open sores that needed cleaning and covering to prevent infection. The cuts are the occupational hazard of a working life spent picking up bottles or scrap from under piles of rubbish, and testify to the difficulties faced by Cambodia’s street children.

I watched in awe as Devi diligently attended to their open cuts and grazes by dim lantern light. He was a child forced into adulthood by poverty, now working to soften the blow for others. It is a powerful image that will stay with me, a glimpse of the hope that lives in the human spirit – even in a child who has lived a tougher life than any child should have to, and now gives back because he has been given a chance.

Former street child, Devi, cleaning and covering cuts and grazes of a rag picker child at the World Vision Cambodia night outreach program. Photo credit: Ben Knop

Today marks World Day Against Child Labour, and this year the United Nations’ International Labour Organisation is focusing on girls who are sold as maids. Globally it is estimated that 11.3 million girls work as domestic labourers, with the largest proportion working in Asia.

At a World Vision-funded shelter that supports survivors of child labour and trafficking, I heard the story of Ary*.

Ary was an orphan, and was lured into work by a family with an offer of somewhere to call home while helping around the house. The reality was very different to the promises made to the teenager. Ary was tortured when her work didn’t satisfy the family and sexually abused by the father. When word got out about Ary’s situation local authorities rescued the teen and placed her in the care of the Cambodia Centre for Protection of Children Rights (CCPCR), where she received protection, shelter, love, guidance and support.

ADVERTISEMENT

When Ary arrived she was illiterate and traumatised. Over time, with psychological support and access to education, she slowly gathered the skills she would need for reintegration back into society.

Ary also received weaving training, and is now running a successful business making and selling scarves. With her new skills – and the independence that comes with them – Ary can now overcome her traumatic past and look forward to the future she never dared hope for.

Former child labourer, Chanhsy, now working as a market gardener. Photo Credit: World Vision

Stories such as Ary’s are all too common in Southeast Asia.

Chanhsy* and her family lived in rural Laos when a broker arrived in her village looking for girls to work in Thailand. Aged 13 at the time, Chanhsy saw it as a way to help her family, by sending some of her wage back to Laos.

She became one of the hundreds of girls who have been sold to work as maids in the homes of the rich in neighbouring countries.

After arriving in Thailand Chanhsy worked as a domestic labourer without pay, working from early in the morning to midnight, cooking, washing, cleaning, and feeding the dogs. Chanhsy was not only locked inside the house, but  cameras were installed to watch her movements.

After three years living as a slave, Chanhsy was able to escape by climbing over the wall in the middle of the night. With help from other Laotians in Thailand she was able to work with the Thai police to be sent back to Laos.

Chanhsy’s story has a happy ending. With help and training from World Vision she is now working as a market gardener back in her own village, where she earns a fair income and has a say over her own future.

Former child labourer, Chanhsy, now working as a market gardener. Photo Credit: World Vision

Child labour and exploitation is a complex and overwhelming issue, but to see the hope and joy in the eyes of children that have led a life that we wouldn’t wish upon anybody is inspiring beyond words can describe.

*All names changed for the children’s protection. 

Gabrielle Brophy is a 26-year-old communications advisor. She has worked at World Vision Australia for three years, and has become a passionate advocate for survivors of trafficking and child labour.

To donate to World Vision’s Child Rescue program go to www.worldvision.com.au or call 13 32 40. And learn more about child labour at www.donttradelives.com.au.

00:00 / ???