Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Charting a new path: Improving the lives of children who come into conflict with the law

By M’Lop Tapang

M’Lop Tapang’s social worker, Ms. Chan Somaly, 
during a counseling session with Lyra (not his real name). 
© M’Lop Tapang/2017

Sihanoukville, Cambodia, February 2018 — Lyra* was in his early teens when his parents died.

Born in the central Cambodian province of Kampong Cham, the young man, now in his early 20s, has three brothers and two sisters. Lyra left the rural area for the popular beach town of Sihanoukville in southern Cambodia, while his two elder sisters and youngest brother remained in their home town.

In his new surroundings, life got even tougher. Lyra lived on the street, occasionally using drugs and began stealing to get by.

In 2014, when he was 17, Lyra met a social worker, Ms. Chan Somaly, from local NGO M’Lop Tapang. The organization’s social workers frequent Sihanoukville’s markets, streets and beaches to find children in need like Lyra, offering them free services that range from counseling to back-to-school programmes to vocational training in an effort to get them off the streets and on track toward a healthier future.

Somaly worked closely with Lyra for over two months, providing psychosocial counseling and telling him about the available services and activities at M’Lop Tapang’s centre.

Lyra took some convincing. “Brother, what is your decision?” Somaly asked one day. “Go to M’Lop Tapang? Over there, you can play sport, learn circus training, get medical treatment when you are ill and eat proper food. You will find many friends studying there.” she said.

“If I go to study at M’Lop Tapang, how will I get there? And what will I wear?” Lyra responded.

“M’Lop Tapang has a van to transport you and you can wear whatever you like”, replied the social worker.

Finally, Lyra agreed to try.

For three years, Lyra went to M’Lop Tapang for psychosocial support, food, non-formal education, health services, and other care. But he struggled to change his behaviour.

In June 2016, Lyra, 19 by this time, was arrested for stealing.

Whereas many young Cambodians in conflict with the law would have been sent to jail and tried in the court system like an adult, Lyra’s outcome was different: The police notified a social worker from M’Lop Tapang of the case and agreed for Lyra to be diverted away from the justice system to the NGO instead.

The officers’ course of action demonstrated important awareness of the value of diversion rather than incarceration, one of the key tenets in the Law on Juvenile Justice, which was enacted just a month later in July 2016.

Immediately after this new law was adopted, the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (MOSVY) spearheaded development of a strategic and operational plan to guide implementation of the Law on Juvenile Justice. The Strategic Plan will soon be signed by MOSVY and the Ministry of Justice, marking yet another important milestone in Cambodia’s child protection environment.

Lyra continued to receive psychosocial support from M’Lop Tapang and study there. Somaly reported that his confidence remained low, telling her that he was not good at studying and “knew nothing”.

“There are many professions that you can choose, up to what you like,” encouraged him the social worker.

With this encouragement, Lyra decided to become a cook and work in a restaurant. In 2017, he completed his chef’s training and found a job in a restaurant on a nearby island with a steady monthly salary. Somaly still follows up with Lyra to ensure he has all the support he needs.

UNICEF supports M’Lop Tapang’s work as part of the Partnership Programme for the Protection of Children (3PC). This partnership, founded in 2011, aims to strengthen Cambodia’s child protection system, and to prevent and respond to various child protection concerns, including for adolescents like Lyra who have come into contact with the law.

The partnership programme is led by MOSVY, NGO Friends-International and UNICEF, and implemented in collaboration with 10 NGOs. Since its inception, the partnership has helped over 30,000 children at risk of, or experiencing different types of child protection problems. UNICEF has played a key role in supporting 3PC’s activities since its inception, particularly in providing advisory and financial assistance.

*Name changed to protect identity

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