The situation in Cambodia
Cambodia has a young demographic structure with 44.3% of the population under 18 years of age. A combination of severe decimation of the population during nearly three decades of war and civil conflict, a post-war boom and the low average life expectancy of 57 years, are reasons behind the unbalanced population demography.
According to official statistics, 35% of the population in Cambodia lives below the poverty line (1800 Riel / USD 0.45 per person, per day). Approximately 80% of the population lives in rural areas4 where the highest poverty and the lowest school attendance is found5. Crop failures, weather conditions, environmental degradation, health problems, landlessness and lack of access to land make families very vulnerable. Lack of opportunities such as poor access to assets, education and skills training, lack of infrastructure and inadequate farming technology are among the reasons behind poverty.
Though it is also widespread in high social classes, increased violence against women, rape, domestic violence and trafficking of women and children might be symptomatic of poverty. It may also be symptoms of a post-war stress reaction and for many the only solution to handle their stressful life.
Street Children in Cambodia
In Phnom Penh there are, on a daily basis, 1,000-1,500 street children who have completely cut ties with their families and have made the streets their home. According to the figures accepted by UNICEF, there are between 10,000-20,000 street children working on the streets, who have kept ties with their families and return home either regularly or irregularly. Mith Samlanh estimates that there are between 500 and 1,500 children belonging to street living families. This figure fluctuates, depending on the situation in the provinces.
There are many reasons that children end up on the streets:
Urban poverty forces many children to work. Either family poverty, or the need to supplement family income are the reasons most children work on the streets. The cost of public education (registration fees, uniforms, supplies, mandatory private lessons) is often too expensive for many parents, so they are unable to send their children to school. These children then spend most of their time unsupervised either loitering, or working in order to supplement the family's income.
Even though the adult HIV rate in Cambodia decreased from 3% in 1997 to 0.9 in 2006, the country still has one of the highest rates in Asia. As the number of children affected (sick parents, orphaned) is increasing, so is the number of street children. According to the Demographic and Health Survey 2005, 627,000 children are orphaned (62,000 double orphans) in Cambodia. No reliable statistics exist for those who have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS but might be as many as 60,000 orphans and vulnerable children in Cambodia due to HIV/AIDS. Many of these children will have to work to supplement their family income and will eventually have to fend for themselves.
In recent years, drug use has become more common among youth from all social backgrounds. Drug use is rapidly forcing an increasing number of young people into poverty and on the street, putting them at risk of illness, violence, exploitation and other forms of abuse. There are an increasing number of children in the street due to drug use.
Poverty, lack of education, domestic violence and a lack of opportunities in the provinces have led to increased urban migration and an increase in the population of street living children, street working children and street living families. There are an increasing number of young migrants from provinces arriving in Phnom Penh, who are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
For more detailed information about street children in Cambodia, download a copy of the Street Children Profile.
The children at Mith Samlanh
Students at Mith Samlanh range in ages from babies up to 24. Mith Samlanh is one of the few organisations that provides support to the 18 to 24 year age group. These children and youth come to Mith Samlanh for a variety of reasons, and Mith Samlanh does everything to try to reintegrate these young people back into society, into school, employment or back into their families.
For many young children, regaining their self esteem is a vital step in moving away from life on the streets. While at Mith Samlanh, they are encouraged to learn how to express themselves through art, sport and culture and interacting with other children.
Mith Samlanh outreach staff work on the streets to identify children and youth who could benefit from the services provided, but children are never forced to come to the center, or to stay there. It is entirely the decision of the children and young people to participate in activites, go to school or learn a trade at our center. It is this open door policy that is one of the reasons Mith Samlanh has a high success rate, of graduating students, children returning to families or coming clean from drugs.