Cambodia has long tried to brush off its image of child labour and particularly the child sex trade. The sad reality is that some Westerners come to Cambodia to take advantage of the poverty of this small country and to exploit children sexually. Gary Glitter is the name that springs to mind and even Lonely Planet has an excerpt about how best to deal with suspicions of the child sex trade in Cambodia.
Thankfully most Western countries, the UK included, have legislation in place which means that if a citizen commits an act of paedophilia abroad then they will be punished upon their return.
As you enter Cambodia there are signs which forbid sex with children and make an at best feeble attempt to warn people of the dangers. The reality is if you smuggle 15grams of drugs into Cambodia you will face the death penalty yet if you have sex with a child you will spend a few years behind bars.
I guess it comes down to poverty. In Cambodia there are two classes of people, the haves, and the have nots. The fact is you either have money or you don’t. There is no middle class, no in between. My driver today for example earns about $9USD per day, thats about £6 and last week for example he worked only 3 days.
Whilst i fully understand that the value of £6 is far higher here than in the UK it is still pitifully low.
Child Labour is outlawed in Cambodia yet today alone i got approached by about 30 different kids all begging me for even a scrap of food or trying to sell me things. At one of the Temples we were at today there was a girl that can’t have been more than 3 years old looking after a boy who was no more than 6 months old. She was trying to stop him climbing onto the ledge that had a 20ft drop at the other side. As I walked past she began to beg me for money as the boy started to climb, she held his leg so he couldn’t climb, still looking at me and begging me – A responsibility she should not have had, a maturity she should not be experiencing.
There was not another person in sight and it is clear that they had been left there until later in the day when the parent comes back expecting there to be money.
Or the three boys i saw with huge sacks, all collecting plastic bottles from the river. They were climbing the trees and messing about as their huge sacks lay half full. I knew full well they had been sent out for the day, only to return when they were full. Yet they were still trying to be children by playing, making a game of things.
Then, as we walked through the jungle we heard some really bad singing, im talking worse than even me! Yet there stood 5 young kids all wearing ridiculous hats they had made themselves from leaves just trying to get a few dollars as they did some sort of humiliating dance.
There are kids selling books, selling flutes, I even had a little girl no older than Abi say ask me to buy a postcard, when i said no she said “Please Mr, please buy my postcard” her young face was already scarred with hunger. I defy any parent not to be effected by that – A 5 year old girl wearing only a dirty, oversized pair of shorts pleading with me to buy a postcard with a look in her eyes of sheer desperation.
Through the centre of Siem Reap which really is only a tiny town there runs a river, with it being monsoon season the water has risen and is brown. We have spent a lot of time walking along that river and i have seen many times children no older than 6, up to their armpits in the river trying to manoeuvre a large net in the vain hope of catching a fish – Probably their only meal of the day if they are lucky.
We experienced the same last time we were in Cambodia and the sad thing is that the police seem more interested in getting a few extra $$ from people for doing minor things than they are in looking after their own.
Cambodia is somewhere that we hold close to our hearts, it is just with great sadness that we have had to witness the exploitation of children on a level that is seemingly acceptable in Cambodian society yet would be an absolute outrage in the UK.
I can only hope the future holds more for the children of Cambodia than it does right now; Sadly there seems to be no sign of change.