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Begging children in Cambodia

Since I’ve been back from my short visit to Siem Reap, I’ve had many conversations about the state of children begging in Cambodia. I’ve heard many, many stories of people who bought things from street kids, who simply gave them money, or who bought them things thinking that was better than doing nothing.

I won’t criticize any of these people because the emotion involved in these actions was completely justified and understandable. However, that is what the people running these kids rely on. It’s much harder to say “no” to children, but unfortunately that’s exactly the emotion that these entrepreneurial street kids’ pimps count on.

I will say that a travel companion of mine fell into this trap, and it was not until halfway through the transaction that we all really realized what was happening.

A child of no more than 12 was carrying a baby and begging passersby to buy the baby milk. “I don’t want money, my baby sister needs milk.” And the baby really did look like it needed something with its head lolling to one side as it barely looked conscious. So my traveling companion said, “Yes, follow me into the store (conveniently right behind us) and I’ll buy some formula.”

As we were standing behind her at the check-out, another older woman followed by a dirty street kid had picked up the exact same can of formula, but immediately after she paid for the formula, she pulled back the fresh seal. “So they can’t sell it back to the store,” she said with a sad smile as the child accepting the formula cringed and tried to push it back so that it looked un-opened.

$11 for a can of formula is a lot more than the $1 most kids get by selling bracelets or begging.

(While three of us moved on, one of my friends stayed on in Siem Reap and basically spent the next week telling tourists not to buy formula from these street kids)

There is little worse than thinking that you’re helping a good cause than to realize that you’re just feeding the problem. Often street kids who are working in cities like Siem Reap or Phnom Penh are not working for themselves, but for older street “pimps,” who might be providing meager food and shelter in return for the kids walking the streets night after night and hunting for some naïve tourist to rip off. (This isn’t me being harsh; I’m counting myself in this large group of people.)

The worst part of this whole situation is that you really are just perpetuating their misfortune. If a child is making good money begging on the street, whether it’s because they are an orphan, or because their parents have no other choice but to send them away to make money for the family, it is very unlikely that they will be able to get out of this situation. Because of the amount of money that they can make on the street they will not be sent to school, they will not be able to make the most of themselves and escape the life of the streets, and they will undoubtedly be exposed to predators or drugs.

Unfortunately, as long as tourists give to these children who pull at their heart strings, the circle will continue endlessly.

There are multiple organizations that are working to stop this circle of abuse; those are the places worth donating and spending time.

Because this is such a heavy topic that I may or may have provided enough detail about, here are some extra reading links that I found useful, albeit depressing:

A good article on Travelfish about why giving money to street kids is a bad idea.
An in-depth article about how voluntourism can go wrong.

And here are some links to worthy organizations working to prevent this cycle of poverty:
The PonHeary Ly Foundation
The Green Gecko Project

These are just a couple, but if you were as touched as I was by the overt poverty in Cambodia, or are planning a trip there, do your own research and decide how you want your dollars put to use.


About dontcallmenikki

I'm your typical Torontonian city girl who is continuously fulfilling her wanderlust. I've walked hand in trunk with an elephant, been on safari, swam with sharks in South Africa, pet a tiger, bartered in markets, eaten street food daily in Thailand, seen Angkhor Wat at sunset and sunrise, slept in a Loas village, trekked through mountains and tubed down the Vang Vieng river. After completing a years teaching contract in Thailand I headed to Burma to sail down the Irrawaddy, photograph leg rowers, sit in silence at many glistening stupas and make friends with monks. Now it's time for what my friends call the "real world" and acclimatizing back into Western culture.

5 responses »

  1. Amazing post. It’s a horrendous situation but all we can do is try our best to help – the websites you linked to are so inspirational, they make me want to get out there and work with them!

    • It’s hard to not just get depressed by the whole situation, but there really is some good that can be done as long as people are knowledgeable about what is actually helping and what isn’t.

  2. I was one of those tourist that fell for it. I realized what was going on when I saw the child approach a woman who took the milk from her. The child also wanted me to buy her diapers. I only bought the milk. Leaving the store another child approached me with the line of not wanting money. I realized $11 is more then getting $1. The second child got aggressive with me and would not let go of my arm and got angry when I said no to her. I felt bad the thought of what happens to this children when they don’t bring the milk or diapers.

    • It’s hard not to fall for it. I felt sketchy about the situation, but in retrospect, probably would have felt guilty having just walked past them. Using children to prey on tourists is just tragic.

  3. Had to comment!
    I’ve seen so many tourists fall for it, and it’s not their fault! There’s a huge drive on at the minute to stop people giving to begging children as it encourages them to stay out of school, leaves them vulnerable to various different dangers etc… Plus having 10 year old kids dragging tiny babies around at 2am is just not good (especially with that horrible Mikey’s Bar there! Makes me feel uneasy.) Unfortunately, it seems a large number of people haven’t seen the posters or anything.
    Last night I warned two tourists who had been taken to the shop under Xbar – the beggar girl then stamped on my toe and kicked me. Because that’s how to have people take pity on you – violence!!
    But seriously, I wonder if the NGOs have tried to work with these particular kids? It always seems to be the same group. Or maybe they just don’t let the NGOs help them.

    P.S. I would advise everyone NOT to buy anything at all from that shop. It’s in on the scam and is well known for giving the wrong change (pocketing the rest of course).


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