Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Diversion Programme provides hope for young people

By Angelique Reid and Jemma Somervail

SIEM REAP, Cambodia, 17 February 2015 -  “I want to have my own welding shop and be able to buy a piece of land in a local district close to the market”, says 19-year-old Vutha,* when asked about his dreams for the future.

Vutha* working for a local welding business in Siem Reap.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2013/Reid

However, if this ambitious teenager had not received assistance through the UNICEF supported Diversion Programme, his choices may have been very limited.

A tough beginning 

Vutha was born in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, but it wasn’t long before his family was torn apart. While giving birth to his younger sister, his mother died, and just a few months later his father passed away. Vutha then went to live in Siem Reap with his aunt’s neighbour, his sister stayed behind in Phnom Penh. For a while he was able to go to school, make new friends and not think too much about his old life, but at age 11, the neighbour, and Vutha’s sole guardian also died, leaving him alone in the city with no support. “[After] he died, I lost all my concentration in class [at school] because it reminded me of when my parents died,” Vutha says.

Vutha then went to stay at a local place of worship, the Wat Bo pagoda. Though he didn’t go to school, he studied Buddhist discipline as well as literacy and numeracy at the pagoda. “I lived there until I was 13 years old. The old monk that I lived with also died. I lost all support when the monk died. I felt lonely and I was afraid of the spirit of the monk,” says Vutha.

Vutha ended up living on the streets in Siem Reap town. He earned money for food by collecting rubbish and plastic bottles. Risk and danger were ever present. Many of his new friends were addicted to sniffing glue and became aggressive when he refused to use drugs with them.

In trouble with the law

After a year of living on the streets Vutha had his first run-in with the law. He stole a bicycle, thinking that it would help him pick up rubbish faster and earn more money. However, shortly after stealing the bike, he realised it was wrong and went to return it but the owner saw him and called the police. Vutha was taken in for questioning and detained overnight.

Although Vutha was 14 years old (the legal age to face conviction in Cambodia), the police officer recommended him for the Diversion Programme run by the UNICEF-supported NGO Kaliyan Mith, an organisation that conducts outreach work with disadvantaged children and families in Siem Reap. It was at the Kaliyan Mith transitional home where Vutha began his new life.

Sou Vandet, Deputy Chief of Police and Kong Sith, Kaliyan Mith Case Manager discuss current cases at Svay Dangkom Sankat commune.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2013/Reid

A successful partnership

At the transitional home Vutha lived with other children in the programme and started remedial classes, learning math and Khmer as well as receiving counselling and career advice. At 16 he went into a grade 4 primary school class but soon afterwards joined Kaliyan Mith’s skills training centre to learn welding. He completed the course in June 2012 and was placed in an apprenticeship organised by Kaliyan Mith where he has gradually increased his skills.

Vutha says Kaliyan Mith changed his life completely, “I have a new job and earn a salary of US $200 per month,” he says.  Vutha values Kaliyan Mith’s ongoing oversight. “Even when I was on the apprenticeship at the job placement, I received regular support. My leg became swollen with an infection and a nurse came and visited me at the transitional home regularly,” he says.  Now Vutha has clear goals, “In the future, I want to have my own welding shop and find my sister. I have been able to save up money and purchase a piece of land in a local district close to the market. I am saving to build the shop and a house with my girlfriend who is a seamstress. I’m also training to be a peer mentor on the Kaliyan Mith Peer Mentorship Programme.”

Why the Diversion Programme is so important

The Diversion Programme in Siem Reap was started in 2008 to provide an opportunity for children who commit minor offences to be diverted from the court and prison system towards rehabilitation and support measures in the community, through cooperation between police officers and social workers. William Sourn, project manager of the Diversion Programme at Kaliyan Mith says they wanted to stop kids involved in minor offences from going to court and ending up in prison. “Prior to 2008, children who came in conflict with the law would automatically be sent to court and…detained in prison for an average of three to six months while awaiting trial.”

Deputy Chief of Police from Svay Dangkom Sangkat Commune in Siem Reap, Sou Vandet, says the number of crimes committed by children has reduced since the programme was implemented. “Of the children who have been referred to Kaliyan Mith – only a small percentage returned to the police station. There is an 80 per cent success rate of those referred”, he says. His main concern now is that children from other communes aren’t able to access the services from Kaliyan Mith as it can only serve a certain area.

A young student at the welding class at Kaliyan Mith Vocational Centre where Vutha learnt his skills, Siem Reap.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2013/Reid

Child Safe Hotline

Kaliyan Mith created a 24-hour hotline called Child Safe hotline, to enable police to easily refer children to social workers. A team of social workers respond to calls within 10 minutes, sending Kaliyan Mith staff to collect children from the station and take them to the transitional home where they are supported by the reintegration team.

In 2012, 38 children were referred to Kaliyan Mith, mainly drug users. “Most of the children who came into conflict with the law committed some kind of theft”, says Deputy Chief of Police, Sou Vandet who has been in his role since 2008. “Types of offences included: theft, snatching, home burglary, actual bodily harm, disturbing the peace and order. In terms of pick-pocketing, the children mostly target the tourists on Pub Street and other tourist areas. Ten per cent of the 38 children who came into conflict with the law went on to offend again,” he says.

Sou Vandet attended a two-day training on the diversion programme, conducted by Kaliyan Mith in December 2009, where police officers learned about legal procedures for children, including talking to children in a child-friendly manner. He says it was very useful, “I learnt more about the legal procedures that must be applied in diverting children’s cases to alternative measures.”

He says they knew they needed to change the current system. “The children were committing these offences on a regular basis. They would come here and we would contact their parents and ask them to keep an eye on their children, but the system was not so effective. We knew we had to put something more effective in place”, explained Deputy Chief of Police, Sou Vandet.

Thanks to the programme implemented by Kaliyan Mith, children now have the opportunity to bring positive change into their life. This not only benefits them, but also the wider community in which they are living.

*Name has been changed to protect identity.

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