In Cambodia, as more and more families migrate from rural villages in search of work, their children are placed at greater risk of exploitation and trafficking. Here, in one rural province, Holt is working to keep children safe in the care of their families and communities.
A young girl — 13 years old — just had her last day of school. Not because the school year ended and let out for the summer. And not because she graduated one grade to move on to the next. For this girl, her last day of school came abruptly — disrupting her education when it all but started. Next week she will move to the city, all alone, where she’ll start work. She was promised a good job, but she knows better than that. She’ll probably work in a garment factory or maybe as a maid in someone else’s house, with long hours and meager pay. Her mother worries and tells her to be careful of strange men who may seem nice at first, but may want to hurt her. She is scared and doesn’t want to leave her friends and village, but she knows she must go to make money and help her family.
This girl could be any girl in the Prey Veng province of Cambodia.
In this impoverished region in southern Cambodia, families are leaving en masse in a desperate attempt to find work in neighboring countries or in Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh. But often, the promise of “better work” is just a scheme that instead leads to all kinds of offenses against child rights, even trafficking. Children as young as 11 years old are often pulled from school and sent out on their own to find work. These children end up working tirelessly in manufacturing factories or as domestic workers, trying to help their family “get by.” In the meantime, they are stripped of family, community and the opportunity to get an education.
It’s evident that for children, poverty reaches far and wide.
Prey Veng means “great forest” and today much of this great forest has been converted and used for farming, especially for growing rice. Many families’ primary income is from rice production. But this income from growing rice is not enough to support a family. Many families only have enough to provide for themselves nine months out of the year. In fact, 53% of the population live below the poverty line, making Prey Veng the poorest province in all of Cambodia. Thus, families migrate, uprooting themselves from all they know.
At Holt, we strive to ensure children can reach their full potential in life. We work to ensure they can go to school, grow up in safe environments and remain in the loving care of their families. And in impoverished regions like Prey Veng, we equip families with the tools and resources they need so they don’t have to leave the safety of their communities in search of work.
To address this growing crisis in Cambodia, we began a new project at the beginning of this year in the Mesang district of Prey Veng — partnering with Child & Life Association (CLA), a local non-governmental organization highly experienced in child welfare.
“The purpose of the project is to help reduce and prevent unnecessary migration and child labor by keeping children and families together in their communities,” says Thoa Bui, senior executive of Holt’s programs in South & Southeast Asia.
Holt and CLA are working in six different villages in this area, home to 2,069 families. The project has four main areas of focus: self-help groups for single mothers, educational support for children, microloans to help families implement small income-generating projects and become self-reliant, and child peer education to raise children’s awareness of issues impacting their lives and safety.
In the ten short months since this project started, the effect has been huge! Here’s an overview of the developments with this project in Prey Veng:
An education makes all the difference for a child living in poverty. It gives them the tools and skills to prepare for the future — a future where they are healthy, self-reliant and successful. But when their families migrate from their homes and villages, many children from Prey Veng have their childhood cut short as play and learning are replaced with work. So helping children in these villages enroll and stay in school is a huge priority. We began by matching 60 children with child sponsors, who each provide funding needed for school supplies, uniforms and educational mentors. Now, 10 months after the project began, 150 children benefit from the education and educational support provided by their Holt child sponsors!
Self-Help Groups for Single Mothers
Through family strengthening programs in the countries where we work, we strive to serve the families in greatest need. And often, the most vulnerable families are those headed by a single mother. To support single mothers and their families — with the focus on keeping families together in their home village — we started monthly self-help groups in six villages in Prey Veng province. Through these groups, women can come together as a community to learn, support and encourage each other. They are a place to share ideas, struggles and future plans. And staff from our partner organization, CLA, lead discussions on topics such as parenting, nutrition, education, finances and providing for their families. They also facilitate discussions on how to protect and be an advocate for children, and make personal check-in visits with each group member in her home.
As the lack of food security is a huge threat to most of these families and children, home gardening is one of the first initiatives for women in the self-help groups.
This begins with agricultural training and the development of fertile compost to start their gardens. Not only is this the first step in growing their own food, but it also has helped clean up their homes and streets — giving children more space to play!
Once families have healthy compost, they’re given gardening tools and seeds to begin growing nutritious vegetable gardens full of eggplants, cucumbers, string beans and wax melons. During the dry season, they learned to become strategic with agriculture and plant crops like cassava (or yucca), which grows well in dry ground and provides twice the nutritious calories as its counterpart, the potato.
Because of the self-help groups, these mothers now have a better understanding of the importance of nutrition and education for their children and the difference it can make in their lives.
Within the first few months, attendance in the self-help groups went from 81 to 178! And this number is steadily growing as group members and CLA staff continue to invite more women from the villages to join.
Microloans to Build a Sustainable Business
Financial assistance is another big part of these self-help groups. CLA group leaders teach the women about savings, book-keeping and investments. They also encourage them to find new ways of generating income that will help them become self-reliant and financially empowered.
“What these income-generating activities are can vary greatly depending on their individual talents and needs. It could be raising chickens, raising pigs, or opening a noodle restaurant and selling to villagers. Some have even borrowed loans to buy a tuk tuk,” explains Thoa, referring to a kind of taxi very popular throughout Asia.
Once they demonstrate reliability by developing savings and a business plan, Holt offers micro-finance loans to help as a kick-start in these initiatives. As they begin these endeavors, they have each other in the self-help group for support. Holt also helps to provide resource exchanges with other villages to educate and train families on different ways of generating income, whether it be selling eggs or farming rice.
Child Peer Education
The fourth and critical component in this project is designed to educate children about their rights as a way to combat and prevent neglect and abuse. In each village, children are selected as leaders to take part in a training on topics relevant to their lives in Prey Veng. They’re taught by CLA leaders to recognize abuse and neglect and report it to adults in their village. They’re also educated about tactics that could be used by child traffickers and the negative effects of drug and alcohol use. Following the trainings, the children return to their villages where they hold events to share what they learned with their peers. Since the project began, over 500 children have received peer education, and are now becoming advocates for themselves and others. They are raising awareness in their communities and educating other children about how to protect themselves and escape abuse, neglect and poverty.
Since this program began less than a year ago, many families have learned to better provide for their children so that they don’t have to move away from their home villages. Children are receiving an education and building a community that supports themselves and their rights. Much work remains to be done in Prey Veng, but it’s encouraging to see so many lives changed already. We’re excited to see this project continue, uplifting the children of Prey Veng with the education, safety and stability that all children need. Together with CLA and child sponsors, we are working toward a future in Prey Veng where 13-year-olds can play with friends, learn in school and stay at home, safe and loved, with their families.
Megan Herriott | Staff Writer