Travelling across Cambodia, it is easy to let the colours, architecture and beauty blind you from the difficult realities faced by the vast majority of the Cambodian population. Look closer, or, should I say, lower, and you will see the hangover from the country’s appalling past in the form of millions of children working on the street. These youngsters, who in most parts of the world would be absorbing knowledge and receiving education in a classroom, are forced to work for hours on end selling trinkets, magnets and anything they can exchange for a few riel.
Cambodia’s lack of education, both in terms of funding and resources, is an acute problem, and one that is unlikely to change without significant support and intervention from the international community. During a day trip around the Angkor Wat temples, a friend and I shared lunch with the tuk-tuk driver, Arun, who had accompanied us around this UNESCO world heritage site for three days. We were interested to hear his views on Cambodia, as well as to know why so many young children were trawling amidst the streams of tourists, some small enough to be almost invisible among the crowds. Explaining that his sister was a school teacher in his home town, about 30 miles south of Siem Reap, Arun told us that there was only enough government funding to provide about three hours of schooling for each child per day. This tiny window for education left the majority of the day free for parents, relatives, or, in some cases, exploitative ‘employers’ to put the children to work on the streets and in tourist spots such as the temples.
We were repeatedly told that it was counterproductive to buy souvenirs from the children dotted at every entrance and exit to the temples as this funded and perpetuated the market for child labour. Unable to sit back and ignore their pleading faces and shouts, we bought bananas, mangos and snacks from some of the older teenagers and redistributed them to the younger ones. Repeatedly refusing to give money (“five magnets for one dollar, Miss, please”) to these visibly maltreated, undernourished and exhausted children was heart breaking. However, this abstention is absolutely necessary to break the cycle and discourage parents from resorting to such measures.
Although Unicef reports that in 2011 “the overall rate of children enrolled in primary school was 95.2 per cent”, it is the pitiful amount of time spent in the classroom, as well as the vast space around these few hours, that remains the issue.
We asked Arun if he enjoyed his job, joking that he has the most beautiful ‘office’ in the world. He told us that his ambition is to save up enough money to be able to build a library in his hometown. He dreamed of giving children access to the books and educational resources that he was never able to enjoy as a boy. This simple, selfless and heartening dream filled me with both awe and sadness, making me want to round up as many tiny children as possible and cart them all in Arun’s tuk-tuk to the closest school or library.
Clearly, although much ground has been made since the years following the appalling horrors inflicted upon Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, there is still far to go to raise the standard of education in Cambodia in line with international standards. I only hope that those who have the power to make this happen share the same inspiring vision as Arun.