Grappling with how to help the street kids and sex workers of Cambodia

by on Wednesday, 07 November 2012 Comments

Clare Tan is currently working on a voluntary basis for AFESIP Cambodia (Acting for Women in Distressing Situations), targeting criminals exploiting sex workers in human trafficking, working on HIV and AIDS outreach, training victims of rape, domestic abuse and human trafficking in vocational skills, and aiding them in reintegrating into society. She graduated from University of Leeds in Chinese Studies and gained an MBA from National Taiwan University. She's currently supporting herself with a job teaching english in order to fund her commitment to her volutary work with the charity. What follows are a series of extracts from her blog, detailing her life in Cambodia, and her struggles in trying to find sustainable ways to help the street children she encounters in Phnom Phen To keep up with Clare's experiences in Cambodia you can check out her blog here.

Somaly Mam is the woman who founded the organisation I’m now working at, AFESIP Cambodia. Five years ago I picked up her book, The Road of Lost Innocence, and was shocked and infuriated by what she had been through: sold into a brothel at the age of 11, kept as a sex slave for almost a decade, she was not free to leave, not free to choose. She eventually escaped and after sheltering more and more girls in her own home, set up AFESIP, the acronym is from the French definition but means ‘Acting for Women in Distressing Situations’. Somaly Mam has dedicated her life to rescuing and rehabilitating girls that are going through what she went through. Only nowadays, the situation is dramatically worse. The problem is it’s children who are the victims here. With many Cambodian men believing the myth that having sex with a virgin will cure them of AIDs, to ensure their virginity, this is happening to children as young as 3 years old. Sex trafficking is one of the most violent crimes in the world. The average girl, when a man is forced on them, will fight back. This is instinctive. The brothel owners and the pimps know this. They combat this by gang raping the girl. Once she has been raped for hours on end by 20 men, she begins to lose her spirit. If this is not enough, they can keep her in the cellar, with the rats and the insects. They can deprive her of food and drink, they can electrocute her, they can put hot chillis in places you would not want a hot chilli. Often you will see these girls on the street, standing waiting for customers, smiling, looking happy. You might find yourself wondering, why don’t they just run away? But these girls are not only physically abused; they are mentally tortured and threatened. They fear for the safety of their family should they run away. It is becoming more and more common to force the girls onto meths and heroine so that they will become addicted and will never stray far from their next fix.


The current state of Cambodia and the unfathomable lack of morals of many of its people can be put down to its horrific recent past. Just to quickly summarise, the Khmer Rouge period of 1975-79 where Pol Pot, Communist ruler attempting his own version of China’s Great Leap Forward, wiped out 25% of Cambodia’s population was less than 40 years ago. 40 years ago! If you were educated, wealthy, a doctor, teacher, government official, you would have been ‘removed’. The whole population of the city I now live in was evacuated by foot to the countryside. 2 million people were forced from the city and not let back in. 20,000 died on the way. Any Cambodian who lived through that period survived witnessed hardship, violence, death, nothing we could ever imagine, their parents shot, torture, starvation. When they were finally allowed back into the cities, many returned to their homes to find them occupied by other families. Land was redistributed to people, but not to all. Nowadays there are many Cambodians living stateless in their own country because they missed out when land was redistributed. They live along the side of train tracks, along the edges of roads. Without land they cannot register for identity cards and therefore cannot go to school. Effectively squatters wherever they set up home, they can be removed at any time. Many were born and lived in refugee camps along the Thai border, or in Thailand itself, not knowing any other home until they were ten years old. Others managed to seek refuge abroad, many ended up in the USA.


I knew sooner or later it would come. Every time I see a kid walking barefoot or I decline the offer of flowers, or books, or bracelets that a child is trying to sell me, every time I walk past a comatose, doped up baby lying silently on the bustling street with his mother putting her arms up to me, each time I see a man with no legs pushing himself along in a wheelchair, I feel a stabbing pain in my heart.

I'm not sure what made me stop and talk to these kids in particular on Saturday night, or what made them stop and talk to me. Initially it was two girls and one younger boy, and before long another boy and girl joined. I was sat at a street side bar. It was really funny and I guess the reason I'd been intrigued to stop there was it looked like one of the metal carts people park up at the side of the road selling noodles or cut up fruit from, but instead this one was blinged up with fairy lights and had wooden tables and chairs around it. So effectively I was sat right on the street with the kids right beside me, not that street kids don't work their way into bars but it’s obviously discouraged by the bar owners.

Before long I was pulling stools over so all the kids could have a seat, and I was getting the bowl of bar snacks filled and refilled for them. They became obsessed with my iPhone and the words 'angry birds' kept popping out amongst their Khmer chit chat. They kept opening whichever app had the most fun picture hoping it would be a game but I was trying to explain, no that is QQ messenger: unless you want to talk to someone in China that's not going to be much fun, or unless you want to book a taxi in Singapore I wouldn't bother opening that app. My phone was an extreme disappointment as they realised I didn't have one game! So, to appease them, I downloaded Angry Birds there and then and was amazed to see how good they were at it! I was also happy to see them more or less patiently waiting their turn and occasionally bickering when one of them took too long. This is what kids should be doing: bickering over an iPhone game, not selling flowers on the streets.

I've heard that the street kids are 'owned' by a kind of mamasan, a woman that ensures they bring home a certain amount of money each night. It seemed the older girls were conscious that someone was watching as every now and again they would dart off down the street and 'look like' they were working, (you know the way you do when your boss walks past your desk and you quickly flick off Facebook and feign a very occupied and important look), or sat beside us, they'd put on the begging act so it looked like they were doing their job whilst really they were just waiting for the boy beside them to be done with level 3. If that was all my imagination, then it was also my imagination when they clearly relaxed the way anyone does when their boss walks out the room.

The iPhone did provide some other entertainment including taking pictures of ourselves and cracking up looking at them. The other function they loved was the voice recorder. Once they realised they could record and hear themselves back, they were waiting patiently to take their turn at singing a song into the phone and listening to themselves. These kids can sing! And not that I know if they're making a mistake but they could sing whole songs from start to finish!

It was almost midnight but it hadn’t even occurred to me how wrong it was that these kids were out at this time. Amongst the banter and laughs the younger boy leaned over one of the stools and just conked straight out. It was not until this point it really hit me that these may be street kids, but actually, they were just kid- kids and a kid of his age was exhausted by this lifestyle and really just wanted to be in bed.

I immediately grabbed him and cradled him and he didn't even flinch. He was out for the count. This child, of all of them, got to me, he was the youngest, or at least the smallest, physically not keeping up with the rest. He’d been sat on my knee earlier and I’d noticed how little he weighed and how fragile he was. Putting my middle finger and thumb round his wrist, I could have fit both his wrists in there. His bones were tiny and felt like they could snap. He told me he was ten, which was probably likely, but he looked more like 6 or seven. It was at this point the water works started. It just came over me, started with my eyes stinging, and a few tears, but then I just could not stop crying. Big fat tears for every beggar, street kid or disabled person I'd seen so far came pouring down my face. The worst part was when one of the girls started drying my eyes and telling me it was going to be okay! How selfish was I? I don’t really think it’s the role of a poor street girl to tell me that I’ll be okay! So, I eventually pulled myself together and decided these kids needed to eat.

Carrying the boy and the others in tow, we went round the corner to the mini mart they directed me to. This happened to be the street that I’d stayed on in Phnom Penh with the Project Futures bike ride crew, the mini mart being opposite the hotel we’d stayed at. Outside there were 5 men of varying nationalities sat at a table, laughing, in a kind hearted but just as useless way ‘What are you going to do? Adopt them all?’These 5 men were sat in a street renowned for is brothels and I wanted to slap them each in the face. No, of course I’m not going to adopt them. Cambodian law won’t let me damnit. I understand their ‘concern’ though. What am I going to do? But rather than laugh it off it drives me mad that I can watch these kids like this and have no ability to do anything about it. I didn’t care what they said. Maybe there are thousands of kids on the streets of Cambodia, who knows how many worldwide, but if I can make a difference to one of them for even just one night, if that’s all I can do, I will. I wanted them to at least go home with their bellies full, having had some fun and feeling like kids not workers, and for kids who are shooed away, and ignored by the majority of people, and who knows what on earth has gone on in their family lives, I didn’t think it was too much to ask that they feel that someone does care about them, even if only one night.


clare_tan_4I met two of the girls again last week, one is the one that fell asleep on me and recognised me instantly and jumped up onto me (lucky these kids are light!) The other, I hadn't seen since, and a big smile spread across her face when she recognised me. They knew I wanted to find the boy too so, now that they trusted me, took me to where they, I am assuming, live. I say that because when I got there, it looked somewhat semi permanent but appeared to be no more than some mats laid out on the floor and groups of people sat around. It didn't look even quite permanent enough to be a home so that it made me wonder if this is just where they come to camp out to beg, or if really, they are so destitute, this is actually it. My lack of language skills makes for me not being able to do much else other than observe.

The two girls told me the boy was not there, and his mother, who must have heard about me smiled at me and through the girls she told me he was too far away, she seemed fine that her son was miles away wondering the streets by himself. He is the spitting image of his mother. Now I wonder more and more if it is just undernourishment that makes him look so frail, his mother looks exactly the same. They have the same face but she, likely less than forty, shows the signs of a difficult life. Having lost teeth, and also being extremely skinny, her cheeks pull around her cheek bones the way a pensioners would when they take their false teeth out. Her wrists and ankles are probably as skinny as his. She did not seem against me trying to find him, so that was a good sign. Some families here send their children out to earn money for them and may not want pesky foreigners meddling in their business.

On the way to where they thought he might be, one of the girls jumped on my back and the other was holding on to me. As she was on my back, I could feel her physically flinch as a local man walked past us. She told me ''he a bad man, he a bad man.'' I turned around but by all I saw was the back of a Cambodian man's head. ''He told me boom boom.'' Boom boom, if you don't know, is the phrase used in brothels for sex. I stopped in my tracks at this point and put her down asking for more clarification. I found myself speaking in their English to make sure they understood and to make sure this was very clear.

''He boom boom you?''

"He say boom boom he give me 1000 riel (25cents), I boxing him.''

"But he boom boom you already?"

"No, I too young!"

Okay, I started breathing again and we continued walking, the two girls barefoot. At least these girls are somewhat able to defend themselves. It was at this point that it really hit me though, that although these kids may look streetwise, they are in extremely vulnerable situations. Yes, there are kids in rural areas, who have much more simple lives than them, be much poorer, but there is no doubt that the street children of the cities are at much greater risk of abuse.

We walked past the bus stop where I had just got off the bus from Siem Reap. I was down to my last couple of dollars which I needed to get myself home, so I couldn't even buy myself a drink even though I was gasping, and I had to tell them I couldn't buy them anything to eat today. The ground at this part of the road was particularly gravelly. "Does that not hurt your feet?" I asked naively, genuinely wondering if your feet become tougher if you're always barefoot, I've seen kids walking over everything and in the heat of the day and not even flinch. Is that because it doesn't hurt, or they've got used to the pain? They told me yes it does hurt. "One, two, three, up!" I grabbed the two of them around the waist and we ran over the gravel laughing.

Not that this is relevant to the situation, but just to point out, because it is believed that sex with a virgin can give you rejuvenating powers and even cure you from HIV/AIDs, the price of sex with a virgin can reach USD2000. This is in a country where they average annual salary is in the hundreds. Secondly, what is their definition of ''old enough''? Does this mean when they are old enough, it will surely happen?

We gave up on finding the boy, they told me he was too far. We walked a little more and sat down so they could play Angry Birds- only one game each, as the battery was dying, they also love singing into the microphone and listening to themselves. They want shoes. I want to buy them shoes and clothes, but I don't know if new shoes and clothes is not a good look for children begging for money. Stuck in this moral conflict I sought advice. The answer? Friends International. I know of Friends International, they are an organisation that does exactly what I need, takes vulnerable kids off the streets. But to be honest, what I thought was, there are so many street kids, why would they care about these few in particular. Friends, know as Mith Samlanh in Khmer, offers food, shelter, medical care, training and educational facilities for over 1,800 homeless, vulnerable or abandoned children each day. They have a hotline you can call, but over the weekend I thought they might not be open. I also had very sporadic email access over the weekend, so yesterday I emailed them instead.

It is their email response today that inspired me to blog. Rather than a "sorry, we already have thousands of kids to deal with'', I got a very grateful and polite letter asking for more details and pictures so that the team could go and investigate. This is just one step, but it's a couple of steps along from the first day I didn't ignore them on the street. We are climbing slowly but surely. Friends may not be able to take them off the streets, but at the very least they build relationships with the families, provide education, life skills, AIDS/HIV awareness, counseling, sports. They get many into schools, they offer vocational training, and make beautiful products, they even have a nail bar! They are trained in hospitality and there is even the amazing Friends The Restaurant, and another called Romdeng, which, if you are ever in Phnom Penh, you can't not try.

I know that many people think oh, Clare, bless you for caring, but there's nothing you can do about it, I've even argued with people over this. Well now you can see that if I want to do something about something I'm not happy with, believe me, I will. As to how vulnerable these children are in the whole scheme of everything Friends does, I don't know, and to what extend they can help them, I don't know, but I do feel extremely relieved and excited (Who am I kidding? I'm jumping up and down!) knowing that Friends will be looking out for them and may be able to do something to change their situation, and it will be because I didn't sit back and say, ''Oh that's a shame, but there's nothing I can do about it."


This is all exhausting, physically and emotionally. I’m drained today from both aspects and it’s Sunday night! I should be refreshed and ready to hit Monday! The only reason this concerns me, as with every other form of aid, if that’s what you call it, it needs to be sustainable, and my concern when I feel like this is, how long can I keep this up? I find it difficult to say no, I stay longer than I plan to, last night, I didn’t bump into them until gone midnight, and despite being tired and ready hours earlier to go to bed, I stayed with them until 3.30 am because I felt if they’re still walking the streets at that time why should I get to sleep. This evening I wanted to pop by and find the smallest kid quickly to give him some shorts, then head open to crash, but instead I found everyone but him and ended up with them for 2 hours. I end up staying longer than I really can with them and spending more money than I can really afford.

They’ve multiplied. Word obviously spreads. When we were talking 2 or 3 kids I could take them to eat some real food. Last night, after taking two of them to eat, an hour later there were seven more telling me they were hungry. I don’t have the budget for dinners all round so instead they all tucked into instant noodles which I wasn’t happy with because I wouldn’t even call that food and it hardly provides much nutritional value, but what could I do? In the same way a charity considers its sustainability and impact, I wonder how long I can last, and how much impact this will have, including any negative ones. Am I stopping them earning? I do feel I’m glad they can have a treat, or get their bellies full, or just feel like someone gives a shit about them, or just have a bit of time off, but I know that that won’t help anything long term and I do wonder if that affects how much money they can make in an evening so I hope that doesn’t cause trouble with their parents. I am keeping faith in Friends International who have already also tracked them down and keep me well informed, they are finding out more and will try to implement change by working with the families.

Emotionally it is a challenge. I find myself biting back tears all the time. I see things I can’t bare but there is nothing I can do about it. I can’t stand that their clothes are so disgusting. They wear the same clothes every day. They are brown with muck and they stink. Their bodies are not much better, their skin is grimy and their hair matted and knotted. I hate when I see them walking on the ground the over pebbles and and disgusting liquid. I hate that I bought one of the girls flip flops last week and she tells me they’re at home and doesn’t wear them. Obviously shiny flip flops are not a good look for a street beggar. Yet yesterday one of the girls ran to a pile of rubbish and grabbed an old dirty pair of shoes that had been thrown away and walked proudly off as you would do when you’d just bought a new pair. What drives me even more mad is that these children have parents. They are not orphans, but their parents are not taking care of them. One of the girls told me last night if she doesn’t bring enough money home to her mother that ‘Mama boxing me.’

I always attract attention of the locals. They seem amazed that this foreigner would bother. Last night a couple of guys asked me why I do it. I know it should be the responsibility of the parents to take care of them, but just because their parents don’t, why should the kids have to suffer? No-one else is going to look after them so someone has to.

Last night I was walking with my arm over the smallest boy’s shoulder so I felt it when he jumped out his skin then bolted. I then noticed the angry man going towards him who quickly took control of himself when he noticed me. I stared him out and he withdrew a little. Not knowing whether or not he could speak English I said ‘what’s your problem?’ The angry, blood shot eyed man told me ‘no problem, I’m police.’ ‘So why is he so scared of you?’ I didn’t think a policeman would be so averse to having his photo taken. Holding my phone up to his face, I was pushing it. I could see he contemplated grabbing my phone but he stopped himself. I was seething, but was getting out of my depth so I walked away and caught up with the kids. Not going to push it with idiots like him. I can’t bare that kids of ten and twelve should be walking round with that kind of fear though.

Just now I saw a guard or policeman whack one of the girls on the head. It’s such a battle I fight with myself not to stand up for her, but I don’t know the situation and I don’t understand. Not that that matters, I couldn’t care less what the situation or dialogue before was. I can’t bear the fact that we were minding our own business, the kids were riding my bicycle, he comes along and sticks his nose in, of course I can’t understand a word he’s saying but whatever it was sparked one of the girls to snap something in response and she got whacked, not lightly, around the head for it. It is taking all I have in me to bite my tongue and walk away from these situations. I don’t know this country and I don’t know what kind of mischief these kids may cause that man, but still, I cannot bear to watch that. What can I do though? All I can: hug the girl and hope that she can feel someone cares about her.

I picked up a few things I needed today before seeing the kids, so I had a bottle of shampoo on me. It was bugging me that I had that right there in my bag and their hair was all so gross, so I asked them if there was somewhere we could go to wash it. It turns out that right in the middle of the food market, you’d never know, but I guess it’s the equivalent of the public baths of 100 years ago in England, was a communal toilet block. 500 riel (less than 15 cents) each and I could see that this was the regular washing place for many who lived around but the 500 and lack of shampoo limited the kids from using it. When I brought up the hair wash idea there were only 3 girls, but after some time, 2 of the boys from last night and another 1 had also joined us. Annoyingly we couldn’t find the youngest kid that I was initially looking for, and I know when he finds out he wasn’t included he won’t be happy.

So the six all put their hands out and got a big squirt of shampoo and went into their cubicles. I was happy to see their clothes getting flung over the toilet door and knew they were all having a proper wash, not sure when the last one might have been. When they were done, they all came out beaming, the boys all smiles and joking around and literally a shade lighter than before, and the girls standing at the mirror coming their hair the way I remember we would when we’d come out of the swimming pool. The only thing that didn’t sit right was them having to put on the same disgusting outfits. If anyone wants to donate some kids clothes or USD10 to kit them out including shoes, please don’t hesitate.


The difficulty with them getting used to me being around now is I find it hard to deal with their demanding more and more. It’s difficult to teach that when you are speaking different languages, but I am getting kind of sick at the moaning at me and asking for more. Perhaps I had a break through tonight when one girl complained that all the other kids have played Angry Birds on my phone more than her, and ridden my bike more, when really she has had the most out of me. ‘Muey diet, muey diet, muey diet- one more, one more, one more.’ Why can’t you say ‘akun, akun, akun, thank you, thank you, thank you?’ Why can’t you say thank you and be grateful for what you have had rather than constantly asking for more and more? Again, I know this has been ingrained from their parents, but I can only accept that for so long. I told them and not sure how much they caught on that if you want to keep asking for one more I won’t give you anything then. One of them said fine, I’m going. I said okay, see ya. A few minutes later she came over and said sorry and gave me a big hug. The small cynical side of me thinks she doesn’t want to lose her relationship with me or she won’t get anything, the real me hopes she genuinely meant it.



Clare Tan

Clare Tan is an aspiring writer and stay-at-home mother living in Cambodia, where she previously worked on a voluntary basis for AFESIP Cambodia (Acting for Women in Distressing Situations), targeting criminals exploiting sex workers in human trafficking, working on HIV and AIDS outreach, training victims of rape, domestic abuse and human trafficking in vocational skills, and aiding them in reintegrating into society. She graduated from University of Leeds in Chinese Studies and gained an MBA from National Taiwan University.


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