Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Holding out a hand to children on the streets

Cart pushers cross the bridge that separates the no man's land to the Thai border.
© UNICEF Cambodia/Nicolas Axelrod
An estimated 2,000 Cambodian children cross the border into Thailand every day to work or beg. Yet despite these astonishing figures, there is little being done to ensure these children get the proper start in life that they deserve. The Goutte d’Eau drop-in centre, which UNICEF supports, was opened in 2001 to help support these children and is the only centre of its kind in Poipet.

The drop-in centre receives around seven children every night, who are given a safe place to sleep as well as access to food, psychosocial counselling and life skills. Most of the children who go there work at the border and are often involved in drugs and sleep rough on the streets.

During the day, the centre runs a daycare program, which provides non-formal education to children from poor families in the nearby slums. They also operate a mobile library twice a month and carry out education activities in the slums on trafficking, domestic violence and other relevant issues.

Outreach at the border

The centre’s outreach workers spend around seven hours at the border each day where they look for children who are alone and living on the streets. Sao Eang, one of the centre’s outreach workers, explained that “when we see potential children in these groups, we talk to them to see why they are there and where their family is. Some children in these groups are easy to recognize, for example children sniffing glue. We try to talk to the children about the dangers of using these substances. We find out if the children are local or from another place. We then introduce the centre and explain to the children how to find it so they can come on their own if they need to”.

If the outreach workers are successful, the children come back with them to the centre where they can talk to social workers, play with other children and hear more about the services on offer.

“In most cases, nobody tries to stop children coming to the centre. If there are adults supervising the children, then they don’t agree, but we continue asking the children their name and address so that we can try to approach the family at home the next day to encourage them to come” Sao Eang said.

He told us about Rachana (not her real name) who wanted to go to school at the centre, but her parents wouldn’t let her. Instead, they wanted her to go begging at the border. After talking with her parents, the outreach worker was able to convince them to let her study at the centre’s day-care program. Rachana was lucky, but there are many other children in similar situations that need these opportunities.

Survival on the streets

When we asked why children are living on the streets, Yan Som explained “the main reasons are violence in the family, peer pressure from other children and other problems within the family, like disagreements with new stepmothers or stepfathers”.

Whilst they are on the streets, children face a multitude of problems. A worrying number become involved in drugs, mainly sniffing glue or taking amphetamines. One small can of glue costs a mere 40 Baht, the equivalent of one dollar, and lasts a whole day when shared among friends. It is extremely easy for children to buy. Many children are also at risk of becoming victims of trafficking or victims of rape or other forms of violence whilst on the streets.

“Those children who do attend school will have a better future”, said Yan Som, the centre’s coordinator, “but some of them will continue to end up in the same situation as their parents”. During his six years working at the centre, he has seen some success stories. “Some children have become skilled in haircutting so they can support themselves and one is at university in Phnom Penh supported by an NGO”.

The UNICEF supported drop-in centre is part of a wider program by Goutte d’Eau in Poipet that helps over 500 Cambodian children every day. The centre assists vulnerable and exploited children and their families through prevention, rehabilitation and reintegration activities.

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