|© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Charles Fox|
Sihanouk, Cambodia, August 2018 – Growing up in Cambodia is tough for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, but when these marginalized individuals come into conflict with the law their situation can become desperate.
Without financial and professional resources, they face major hurdles dealing with a daunting legal and penal system they do not understand.
One such individual is Buntha (name changed to protect his identity) who was arrested in January 2018 after a family dispute led to a serious fight.
Seventeen at the time of the incident, Buntha was blamed as the perpetrator, arrested, charged and held in custody for eight months as he awaited trial.
He had never been in trouble before and faced a terrifying and bewildering experience as he faced the full force of the country’s penal system.
Like many other children and youths who face the judiciary, Buntha grew up in an environment of deprivation as one of five children. His mother is a manicurist and his father works in a factory.
Because of poverty and the necessity to help his family with money, Buntha dropped out of school in Grade 7 and worked in a garment factory at the time of his arrest.
On hearing of his detention, Buntha’s mother contacted a ChildSafe hotline, who subsequently enlisted the help of the M’Lop Tapang (MT), a Cambodian NGO that works with vulnerable children, youth and their families.
Like most individuals MT works with, Buntha was without access to basic social services, including legal aid.
Describing the arrest, his mother said: “My son did nothing wrong and it is not fair that he was in jail. I think the other side is from a rich family so I needed M’Lop Tapang to help.
“My son was in jail without judgment for a long time because I am poor and I have no lawyer to help us.”
Fortunately, Buntha’s situation improved when a MT-backed lawyer helped prepare his case file and advanced the procedure of the court hearing, which substantially reduced his time spent on remand.
Usually, case files involving poor people have a tendency to face lengthy delays and Buntha could have spent much longer in prison.
MT also helped him with logistics and transportation during the judicial proceeding.
Buntha now lives with his family and is helped by additional support from a child protection officer who makes regular visits to Buntha.
A social worker also provides social and emotional counselling and emergency food supplies.
As a member of the Partnership Programme for the Protection of Children (3PC) – a collaboration involving 10 NGOs, UNICEF and the Cambodian Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSVY) – MT has been highly effective in ensuring vulnerable individuals have adequate support when they face the law.
This intervention has helped Buntha to get back on his feet. He is now working as a car mechanic and is able to provide financial support to his family.
Buntha paid tribute to MT and said: “I can’t thank MT enough for helping me and getting me a lawyer.
“My mother has lots of debt. When I was in jail I could not help her. I am glad to be back working so I can help earn money for my family now.”
Child protection team leader with MT, Mr. Yorn Sophearoth said: “I am happy to see this family back living together and the boy is no longer in jail.
“We work with several cases of children and youth in conflict with the law. Boys like Buntha just need help sometimes to move on to having a better future.”
Since its inception in 2011, the 3PC initiative has helped over 40,000 children at risk of, or experiencing different types of child protection problems.
This partnership, involving MT, is helping to ensure the scales of justice remain more in the balance for those deprived of equity from an early age.