In today's Cambodia, on the fast track
to free-market capitalism, the glamour of modern concepts, money and
power is so seductive that no one can resist it. Individuals violate
rights on the basis of greed. One example of this is child-labor.
In a country stricken with poverty, the majority of Cambodians do
not see employing children from impoverished families as a crime. It
is common to see children working everywhere and doing everything.
But, examining more closely with some orientation to the culture,
our condemnation softened with admiration for a family working
together in harmony for its own benefit. This is at root a family
Cambodia is filled with child-labor. Children as young five
years-old do harsh labor, selling flowers and fruit snacks late into
the night, at the bars and nightclubs full of drunks. A common
refrain heard from these children is: Buy something?
Let us put this situation into context
of the way things work in Cambodia, and particularly in the
structure of the Cambodian family. Cambodians are generally family
oriented, and their lives are deeply rooted in tradition.
Most likely, the father was hired to complete a job in its entirety.
These jobs were cherished as a source of income. The most practical
way for the father to maximize what he received from the work was to
utilize his family for the labor, rather than share wages with
Typically, the family responded by pitching in to do their part. The
children considered it a rite of participation to help, even if they
could only help with small task, and even if this task could be
construed as cruel. They probably would have been upset if not
allowed to work.
Now, at the US Embassy, youth are queuing for immigration visas.
Lack of economic opportunity and a sense of being in a nation adrift
are driving many talented Cambodians abroad in search of their
dreams -- and dollars. Most, however, wish they didn't have to leave
the country to earn a living.
Those in their teens are too young to think of politics,
collectivized farms, or other aspects of the postwar crisis. For
them, the formative experience will be their country's entry into
the WTO, good education and employment.
Poverty and lack of opportunity may be the prime reasons, but there
are many other factors; gender roles given to girls, discrimination
against women, traditional community attitudes toward the poor, and
lack of employment opportunities on the part of the government.
At most public places, parks, restaurants and pagodas, it is
difficult when seeing starving children grabbing your hand and
begging for few Riels, while you are have food on your plate. In the
face of the direst poverty, it has to be done, done by begging, and
done in spite of the ignorance and prejudice.
In most cases, everybody was involved -- men, women and children. As
a witness to this procession, several things struck me. It was all
business. No one wasted any time with small talk. Nor was there any
complaining, not even from the children, who were amazing in their
diligence. It wasn't resignation. There was a hushed dignity about
We all have our own prisms of perspective. But, sometimes we are
forced to consider that others don't even remotely see a situation
the way someone else does. It may not change the way society feels,
but it might help us to understand how someone could come to another
One common event with entirely different perspectives: Looking at it
initially, all I could see was the callousness of robbing those
children of their childhood and future, making them work at tasks
for which they were not physically ready.
Habits and Sacrifices
Over the years, I am making peace and learning to live with all
this. Few have gone to school or achieved proper education. But
school is the children's only chance, and country's future depends
article appeared in
the Cambodia Daily on
Tuesday, July 17, 2007 on p19.