Cambodians call them khmeng anathar, literally “children wandering around.”
But they have many different names in many different countries. In Zaire, they are called moineaux or “sparrows.” In Peru, pajaros frueros, “fruitbirds.”
The phenomenon of street children is not new, and it is not unique to Cambodia.
“This is a universal problem,” said Rath Aun, director of social services for the Phnom Penh Municipality.
Rio de Janeiro in Brazil is notorious for its sheer numbers and brutal treatment of street children. The Philippines has an estimated 220,000 in its 65 major cities, and Indonesia 50,000 in eight cities.
Compared with those numbers, the 20,000 street children that the NGO Mith Samlanh (Friends) estimates for greater Phnom Penh may not seem so many. But that number is double the 10,000 estimated by Unicef in 1993.
The rapid growth, plus economic conditions that threaten to weaken families even more, have many child advocates worried that more and more children will be wandering around Phnom Penh. Plus, Cambodia’s decades of war have added to the usual root causes of poverty and rapid urbanization.
“You have a cycle linked to trauma and poverty that makes it very difficult to have stable families,” said Bridget Sonnois of Unicef.
Sebastien Marot, of the NGO Mith Samlanh (Friends), also believes that the Khmer Rouge’s radical policies during its 1975-78 rule have added to the problem.
“Unfortunately, many parents today were raised without parents, basically. Under the KR, the families were destroyed. The kids were put in separate camps,” Marot said. “Parents today were raised without any parenting skills or role models. Therefore, they often don’t know how to take care of their kids and this adds to the problem.”
Whatever the cause, Cambodia can look to other countries struggling with the problems of street children for ideas on how to help.
Child advocates say countries that have had some success in reducing the problem of street children have used a twin approach: short-term projects to help children and long-term investment in programs to alleviate poverty, homelessness and lack of access to education.