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Robbing The Future

by Vorak Ny

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 tradition.

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 others.

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 it all.

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 conclusion.

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.

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 on it.


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