A couple of nights ago I stopped for dinner at a food stall near my apartment in Phnom Penh. The stall, according to the owner, is affectionately known by locals as “Meatball Shop” and serves French bread and BBQ meats – a common Cambodian snack.
As I sat on a plastic stool, chewing on beef and fish sticks, a little girl walked up carrying a tray of packaged fruits on her head. I was immediately struck by the skill with which she balanced the tray and her cat-like poise as she walked. She looked 8 or 9.
A few moments later I realized what I was really seeing. I’d come across children selling things in Cambodia before, most often along Phnom Penh’s river-front, going from table to table at the restaurants, offering bracelets to the tourists. It had always pained me to watch but I’d resisted buying, knowing the children were organized by adults who kept themselves out of sight.
The girl came into the food stall and sat down at a table behind me, took the tray off her head and leant to rest her cheek against her hand. She gave a small sigh. The stall owner’s wife brought her a plastic cup filled with ice and water. I asked if she was the daughter the stall owner had told me about on a previous visit. She wasn’t. I smiled at her and motioned my appreciation of her tray balancing skills. She smiled back, still leaning wearily into her hand.
I suddenly felt a huge wave of sympathy and wanted to help her in some way. Her tray of fruits was resting on her lap, I decided to buy something, to make her feel better. The only fruit I recognized was pineapple so I pointed to it. Then one that looked like strawberries caught my eye. I picked it up and sniffed at it – it smelt like strawberries. I gave her a dollar and she happily put it in a plastic purse around her neck. She got up and put the tray back on her head. Before leaving, she turned and with a beaming smile said thank you in English.
For a while after she’d gone, I glowed inside with self-congratulation. But that faded as I began to see other child sellers go by. Some were older, others perhaps even younger, also carrying fruit on their heads. I wondered about a young girl who walked past a couple of times clutching a pile of books…Soon the girl from earlier came back and went up to a man standing by a motorbike in front of the food stall. They talked while he inspected her tray. The girl opened her purse and counted the notes inside before handing them to him. I felt sick.
I observed how neatly dressed the man was compared to the girl. Her scruffy pyjamas were in contrast to his clean, collared shirt with rolled up sleeves, baseball cap and cargo shorts. He would have been perfectly at home roaming around a shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon. As he talked on his phone, one hand casually in his pocket and a slight grin on his face, my anger towards him grew.
That girl, and the other children, should have been playing, drawing, dancing, doing what kids should be doing, not walking up and down traffic congested, polluted roads, making money for scrupulous adults. I thought of my sister’s children in London and the life of safety and nurturing they took for granted.
I wanted to do something. I wanted to walk up to the man and tell him what I thought of him. I wanted to punch him in the face. The urge began to feel real and I had to tell myself it was probably not a good idea. The streets of Cambodia are dangerous enough without starting fights with locals who obviously have no morals to begin with. So I sat on my stool and fumed. Soon another man arrived on a motorbike and checked the trays of the other kids. The bigger picture of what was going on became clearer.
But still I wanted to do something. I wanted to say to the girl, “You don’t have to do this, you can go to school, you can study and have a different future.” I wanted her to know that, somehow. I imagined adopting her and changing the course of her life for the better. I wanted to ask the food stall owner what he thought about it all – he spoke good English, seemed educated. But how did I know he wasn’t sending his own daughter out to do the same?
Eventually, the girl and another boy rode away with the man on his motorbike. I hoped she might look back so I could give her a reassuring nod. She didn’t. And of course it wouldn’t have made any difference if she had. I see now how naive I was being. But the facts remain. Cambodia has the highest rates of child labour in all of East and Southeast Asia. According to child sponsorship NGO Humanium, 45% of children age 5-14 are engaged in labour. The statistics on other forms of child abuse in Cambodia are even more worrying. But change starts with awareness. Perhaps the way I can really help will become clear as the awareness in me grows. Maybe that same awareness is growing in you too.
Has this post resonated with you in any way? If so, please comment, I’d love to know what you think.