Sovann reading her book at home.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Chansereypich Seng
Phnom Penh, May 2017 — It’s hard to believe that until recently 15-year-old Sovann* was considered a poor student. “I love going to school and my favourite subject is Khmer literature,” she states proudly. Smart and hard-working, Sovann is now one of the best students in her 7th grade class. But as recently as last school year, her grades didn’t reflect this.
Serious financial strains on her family prevented Sovann from reaching this potential. School was a luxury and her family’s survival a necessity.
Phan*, Sovann’s father, was the breadwinner of the family. He worked as a tuk-tuk driver, a motorbike-driven taxi common to Cambodia, in the capital of Phnom Penh. Last year, he fell sick. Then his tuk-tuk broke down. This led Sovann’s family into a critical situation.
Sovann is the second daughter of four. Her grandmother, who is elderly and sick, also lives with the family. With a total of seven people under one roof, it was harder and harder to survive. Thy*, as a wife and mother, had to resolve the family’s crisis.
She started scavenging every day to prevent the family from hunger. She would search for discarded items like aluminium cans or plastic bottles to sell for small amounts of money to dealers. With her mother off working, Sovann stepped in to help with household chores and take care of her younger siblings. As a result, she often missed classes. Her academic performance plummeted.
Despite the family’s hard work, the situation was not improving. They were desperate.
“Both my mother and husband were sick and we couldn’t afford the medical bills,” Thy explains. “From scavenging, I earned roughly 10,000 to 20,000 riels (~US$2.5 to ~US$5) a day. But we barely survived.”
A little intervention would go a long way for Sovann’s family.
In August 2016, social workers from child survival NGO Friends-International interviewed urban poor families in Phnom Penh. One of them was Sovann’s. When the social workers learned about the family’s conditions, they provided immediate assistance: First, Friends International supported Sovann to re-enter school. They bought her essential school supplies such as uniforms, books and a bicycle.
Social workers then took the father’s tuk-tuk for repair, replacing the old carriage for a new one at a cost of roughly US$300. They also supported medication bills for Phan and his mother-in-law.
This support was made possible through the Partnership Programme for Protection of Children (3PC). Supported and implemented by Cambodia’s Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSVY), Friends International and UNICEF, the programme was founded in 2011 and is now in its third phase (2016–2018). It has helped 450 families like Sovann’s in Chom Chav Commune, Phnom Penh. UNICEF has played a key role in supporting 3PC’s activities since its inception, particularly in providing advisory and financial assistance.
It is hard to imagine what Sovann’s future would have become without assistance. Her family was becoming increasingly vulnerable, unable to escape the cycle of poverty. In Cambodia, children in situations like Sovann’s often face hardships like child labour, physical and emotional exploitation, violence, abuse and unnecessary separation from their families.
Phan has recovered from his illness and, with a repaired tuk-tuk, is now contributing to the family’s well-being once again.
“My regular spot is at Russian Hospital. I earn about 50,000 riel (US$12.5) per day,” he says. “This is enough for us to buy food and send the children to school.”
|Phan sitting in his tuk-tuk. The poster on his carriage
Child Safety Hotline, which is also a part of 3PC outreach.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Chansereypich Seng
Ramorn Choeng, the social worker responsible for Sovann’s case, has high hopes for Sovann.
“She was intimidated by school and all these changes at first,” he says. “She did not talk a lot or express her feelings. Now that she attends school regularly, she performs better in the class and has more courage.”
Choeng coordinated Sovann’s re-entry to school and monitors her school performance every month, providing consultations to the family and other forms of assistance.
“Her family’s conditions have improved a lot over the last six months. We have witnessed better income, health, attitudes, and, importantly, education for all the children,” he says.
“By equipping them with urgent support, we are investing in Sovann’s future.”
As for Sovann, she is delighted by how things turned out. Finally receiving a proper, regular education, she’s able to imagine a better future for herself and her family.
“I am catching up with lessons, and my friends are kind and helpful,” she says. “I got 10th place out of 70 in my class. I want to study harder.”
Now that the young woman is resuming the life of a teenager, what are her dreams?
“I want to be a doctor,” she states. “Then I can protect my family as well as Cambodian people.”
Her parents smile and nod approvingly, showing their pride and new hope.
*Names changed to protect identities