Where Survival Means Tough Choices for Kids
Cheth is 11 years old and, a month ago, what he wanted most was to have his foot cut off.
To a kid living on the streets, it made perfect sense.
“I want to cut my leg off because…I want to beg money,” the bright-eyed boy explained at a children’s shelter last month. “I want to have a wheelchair…. It’s easy to make money when you are like this.”
Broken in an accident earlier this year, Cheth’s foot had become gangrenous from lack of treatment. It was swollen to three times its normal size, oozed a foul pus and caused Cheth near-constant pain.
But the foot was also Cheth’s main asset in his budding career as a street beggar, earning him 500 to 1,500 riel per day. If it healed, he might lose money.
And so, for months, he hid from aid workers trying to take him to a hospital. And when they finally caught up with him, Cheth said he wanted amputation, not treatment. It took strong persuasion to change his mind.
“The further we talked to this child, the more obvious it got that he uses this [foot] as a total means of survival. And he’s not the only one,” recalled Sebastien Marot, coordinator of the Mith Samlanh (Friends) street children shelter, where Cheth now lives and is recovering.
One of Phnom Penh’s growing number of street children, Cheth comes from a world where gangrene is considered a competitive edge and amputation seems like a good career move.
It is a world born of poverty, presided over by gangs and perpetuated by well-meaning foreigners who give small change to children.
It is also a world largely ignored by the Cambodia’s rich and powerful leaders—who in the past five years have chosen to pour vast amounts of money into the military and police while underfunding programs to support families and children.
Advocacy groups say street kids now number more than 20,000 in Phnom Penh, equaling nearly 2 percent of the capital’s population. And they say the problem will explode unless the government and aid groups take drastic, coordinated action.
“All the factors are there for it to increase,” says Bridget Sonnois, who coordinates street children programs for the UN Children’s Education Fund. “Given the current situation and the regional economic crisis, it is difficult to see how there will be much of an improvement, in the short term anyway,” she said.
Meanwhile, the short term is all most street children are thinking about.
Like most street kids, Cheth led a hand-to-mouth, day-by-day existance before he came to the shelter.
He slept on a sidewalk at night and begged during the day. His best friend, aged 15, occasionally made extra money having sex with foreign men. Together, the two boys scrounged enough money to buy food or drugs and to pay off the street gangs that “protected” them.
Cheth also is typical of many street children in that he intitially resisted offers of help. In the twisted logic of the streets, each child has his or her own set of wants and needs. And often, those do not include getting help.
Take Nhiep, a thin 13-year-old who begs near Psar Kandal. This week, a Mith Samlanh outreach worker tried to persuade him to leave the streets and come to the NGO’s shelter. But that was not what Nhiep wanted.
“If I go, my parents might not be able to find me when they come back,” the boy said in a near-whisper.
Sitting on his heels in a riverside park, Nhiep was barefoot and dressed in a tattered school uniform, almost as filthy as the boy himself. It’s the same uniform he wore when he dropped out of school five months ago after his parents moved to Siem Reap without him.
“I didn’t have the money to pay the teachers so I had to stop school,” he said. “Now, I just beg money.”
Nhiep lives in the abandoned Hemacheat Theater, behind the National Bank, along with dozens of other children and families. Days, he roams the side streets off Sisowath Quay, begging 100 riel or so from sympathetic passers-by.
It’s a life Nhiep has adjusted to. Usually, he begs enough to buy food for the day, he said. He has friends, fellow street children—some with parents, some orphans—who band together and run about on the streets. Some even have toys, such as the plastic green airplane with a broken propeller that Nhiep found on a garbage heap.
The Mith Samlanh worker tried to persuade Nhiep that life on the streets has no future, that he has other options. Come to the shelter, he said, and you can have a bed instead of a floor. You can have regular meals instead of begging. You can go back to school, learn a trade. Your friends can tell your parents where you are when they come back.
The 13-year-old studied the ground, tracing a pattern in the dirt. Eventually, he shook his head without looking up.
“I just want to live in a house with my family,” he finally answered, turning his head to hide the tears. He stood up, brushed his knees off and ran off, clutching his broken plane.
Chum Lyseng, the NGO worker, watched him go. Then he sighed. “This happens a lot,” he said.
Of the 100 or so street children he and the NGOs other outreach worker talk to each day, only two or three come to the shelter. Usually, it takes repeated contact with a child to convince him to accept help. And many are never convinced.
“This is the life they know,” Chum Lyseng said. “We tell them about the dangers for children on the streets, but a large number still don’t want to come.”
Some children want help. Some want to stay on the streets.
The question is, what do Cambodia’s political leaders want?
What they say they want is children off the streets and into schools, well-fed, well-educated and preparing to build Cambodia’s future.
But when it has come to distributing government funds for the past few years, it is the military, not the children, who have benefited most.
Last year, the government decreased education spending by 14 percent, while raising defense and security spending by 3 percent, according to Ministry of Finance figures.
So far this year, 51 percent the government’s current expenditures ($121 million of $238 million) went to defense and security, according to statistics obtained from the World Bank.
At the same time, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Welfare got $14 million, only 6 percent of current expenditures, Finance figures show.
Those priorities need to change drastically if there is to be hope for Cambodia’s next generation, say child advocates.
Two government agencies in Cambodia work with NGOs on street children projects: the Ministry of Social Action and the Phnom Penh Municipality. Both are underfunded as far projects for street children are concerned, staff and outside experts say.
“The government spends very little money on this issue,” says Rath Aun, director of social welfare at the Municipality.
There are now several shelters for street children in Phnom Penh, including those run by Mith Samlanh, World Vision and Krousar Thmei (New Family) and a few by the Phnom Penh Municipality. Combined, the shelters help several hundred children.
But Unicef’s Sonnois said the existing programs barely makes a dent in the problem.
“NGOs can make a difference here and there. But to see real improvement, you need wider changes,” Unicef’s Sonnois said. “Probably, the best way in the long term is working on prevention through rural development and improved access to education.”
“This requires a very strong government commitment.”
Without that kind of commitment, experts warn, Cambodia can expect more and more street children and even such extreme cases as Cheth, the boy who saw his gangrenous foot as a meal ticket.
The life led by Cheth and his adopted “step-brother,” Choeun, offers a disturbing example of the street logic.
At nights, Cheth and Choeun slept on mats beneath the awnings of La Paillote restaurant. By day, they worked as a team around Psar Thmei: Choeun carried Cheth around on his back, displaying the grotesque foot. Together, they begged money, mostly from sympathetic foreigners.
For months, they refused offers of shelter and help from aid workers. Like many street children, they wanted only immediate escapes. Often, they used their day’s earnings to buy drugs.
“Some days we buy glue to sniff. Some days we buy rice to eat,” said Choeun when he first came to the shelter. He didn’t know his exact age but estimated he is about 15. “When I sniff the glue, I feel like I am flying, like I can do anything I want…..It’s like having a magic power.”
“When I take glue, I am happy,” Cheth agreed at the time. “I don’t remember I have a broken foot.”
The two met last year when Cheth first came to Phnom Penh from Kompong Cham province. His mother had recently died of malaria, and his father had been shot to death in an argument several years ago. “I had no family…so I decided to come to Phnom Penh and beg.”
Shortly after his arrival, he met Choeun. Like many street children, Choeun is not an orphan. His parents are squatters in the Tonle Bassac area, but he said they don’t have enough money to feed him so he took to the streets four years ago.
The two became fast friends, both said. “He asked me to be his step-brother,” Choeun said. The older boy showed Cheth the ropes, and the two shared their days earnings.
Choeun had another contribution to the partnership, he said. Once in a while he would get money he got from priodic foreign “sponsors.” Pressed further, he looked away. “One man gave me a bicycle, once,” he said finally.”It was nice, but then it was stolen later.”
Choeun’s case worker said the teen was almost certainly selling himself to foreign pedophiles, as many street children do to make money.
It was Choeun’s idea for Cheth to use his swollen foot—which was run over by a train ride at an amusement park around Khmer New Year—as a pity-inspiring ploy to make . Social workers said it is common for an older, more hardened street child to exploit a younger one this way. But Choeun insisted that he has Cheth’s best interests in mind.
“It is easy for him to make money when he is in this condition,” he said. “No one wants to beat him when he is like this….and if he recovered, Bong Thom might be angry”
Bong Thom (Big Brother) is one name for the many teen street gangs in Phnom Penh. While it’s hard to pinpoint just how involved the gangs are in organizing street beggars, child advocates says there is ample evidence they at least skim a profit.
“There seems to be more and more [evidence] on the streets of organization by gangs, the exploitation of young children by older ones,” Sonnois said.
Marot put it more bluntly. As he sees it, giving money to street children often equals directly supporting gangs.
“You give money to the kid because you think he is going to feed himself,” Marot said. “They get the money. They pay the people who racket them. Gangs and so on—they have to give them money or else they get beaten up. So the money goes to the wrong people.”
And often, he said, street children as they grow up graduate from begging into stealing and small-time protection rackets.
Sebastien Marot is, by his own admission, an angry man. “I’m fighting a war here, so I have to be a little angry,” he explained.
After four years working with street children at Mith Samlanh, Marot thought he had seen it all. But Cheth’s case incensed him more than he had thought possible.
“I had had various reports on this kids…We had been looking for this kid for weeks and he was basically hiding from us,” Marot recalled.
“We found him…and we said, ‘We want to check your foot and make it better.’ His answer was ‘I don’t want you to fix my foot. I’m making money here.’”
“And this…this makes me go crazy, wild….I want to shoot someone. It’s just disgusting.”
Marot directs much of his anger toward well-meaning foreigners and Cambodians who give money to children, inadvertantly supporting street life.
“We’re talking about flower children. We are talking shoe shiners…All these kids are staying in the streets because people give them money so they can feel good. It feels good for the people [who give], but it’s really bad for the kids.”
“You give money to the kid because you think he is going to feed himself. No, he’s going to go buy his glue.”
“Basically, you give him money, you destroy the kid….You want to help a child? You get him to a center.”
Rath Aun, the municipal social worker, agrees that giving money to street beggars does more harm than good.
“It is better to help than to give,” he said.
But he said that in Cambodia, with its strong Buddhist tradition, begging is seen as part of life and giving to beggars as making merit. And so the cycle is perpetuated. “In other countries, they understand that giving money is bad. But in Cambodian culture, it is considered good,” Rath Aun said.
The alternative is more difficult. It requires concentrated, coordinated effort by the government and NGOs.
There is already a Street Children Task Force, made up of NGOs, Unicef and government agencies that work with children. And this is what the child advocates want:
They want a step-by-step plan to work together, eliminate duplicated efforts, contact more children each day and get more into shelters and schools. The plan is in the drafting stages now, Marot said.
They want closer cooperation with police and other authorities, and agreement on how street children should be handled. Many NGOs, for instance, disagree with the current Municipality solution—rounding up street kids, sending them to re-education camps and then out to their home provinces. Even Rath Aun agreed this solution has a frustratingly low success rate. “Most of the cases, the children go back to the province but they come back to the city within a few months,” he admitted.
Most of all, though, child advocates say that to solve the street children problem, the government to be formed soon must address the root causes: poverty, lack of education, the breakdown of families. They want money taken away from the military and put into education, health and social services.
For example, Unicef sees education as one of the surest ways of keeping a child off the streets.
But Unicef statistics show that only 15 percent of Cambodian children who start school reach grade five. The 85 percent not in school at around age 12 are already working in rice fields and factories—or on the streets.
The reason most give for dropping out is that their families cannot afford to pay 100-400 riel a day in bribes to their teachers. In turn, teachers say they charge fees because their income is so low (70,000 riel, or $18, per month) and they often go months without being paid.
Sharply increasing education funding could raise teacher salaries and eliminate “user fees,” allowing more children to stay in school.
“The people who rule this country need to make [social spending] a top priority, otherwise the entire country is going down,” Marot said. “If the government is not putting effort into education, into the basic needs of the future generation, there is no future for Cambodia.”
At the crossroads
When intervention works, it can be inspiring, as in the case of Cheth. A month ago he wanted his foot amputed. Now, he wants to go to school.
“I want to stay at the center—good food, sweet treats, a bed to sleep in, a place to play,” he said. He still wants a wheel chair, but to aid his mobility, not a begging career. As it is now, he has to hop on his one good foot while the other heals.
But not every child can be reached. Choeun, Cheth’s one-time “step-brother” and partner, chose not to stay at Mith Samlanh, apparently preferring the familiar life of the streets.
Marot said that Cheth was lucky because he got help in his first year on the streets. “He’s still one of the soft ones, one of the ones we can help.” Choeun was different though, too hardened by his four years of street life to imagine or even want anything else.
“Our job is to find these kids as soon as possible and get them out—before it’s too late,” Marot said.
For those who don’t get out, 19-year-old Threan offers a chilling glimpse into their possible future.
A short, muscular youth swaggering in a tank top and jeans, Threan said he’s lived on the streets since he was nine, when he ran away from the orphanage he was placed in after his parents died. During that time, he survived first by begging, then by stealing.
These days, Threan and six or seven of his friends—“We’re like family, we take care of each other….We don’t betray each other”—sleep in the park across from the Foreign Correspondents Club. For their living, they scour the waterfront for things to steal, motorcycles, mostly, or antennaes and mirrors from cars, he said. With the money they get, they play video games, go to brothels, and sometimes buy glue.
And like everyone else in this story, Threan has something he wants. A gun.
“If you have a gun, it’s easier to rob people. You get more money,” he explained. “A knife is good, too, but a gun is better.”
In fact, he’s actually had two already, pistols he found in the glove boxes of cars parked along the waterfront. At the time, he thought only of selling them for some quick money.
“Now, if I had an opportunity like that,” he said. “I wouldn’t be so stupid.”
After all, it only makes sense.
(Additional reporting by Karen Coates and Lor Chandara)