Yesterday I read about a Cambodian “mother” in Koh Kong who chained up a four-year-old girl in her care for eight hours a day while she went to work. She said it was to protect the girl from drowning or wandering away while she was at work. The girl had been handed over to the woman years ago by her biological mother as collateral for a loan.
When informed of the woman’s arrest, her years of chaining the girl to a post, and the 4-year-old’s move to a children’s shelter, the girl’s biological mother, who lives in Preah Vihear province, said she could not take back and care for her daughter…
The article is about child abuse in Cambodia and an overall lack of concern and awareness. That the girl had been signed over as collateral on a loan wasn’t even central to the story. Variations of that happen all the time, usually involving domestic work in return for food and lodging and, in the best cases, attending school. This was a worst case situation.
After reading about this girl, I turned to another troubling article in The Guardian, Virginity for sale: inside Cambodia’s shocking trade. This article is about rich and powerful men who prey on helpless girls. It’s easy to label that evil and other choice words. But then there are the parents who sell their daughters, desperate for money, presented with a pot of gold. Enough money, some might imagine, to buy a new start for their families. Some don’t seem to comprehend the enormity of what they are doing.
Then I read an article criticizing the wave of orphanage closures starting last year in Cambodia, including efforts to reunify children from the closed orphanages with their natural families.
The author wrote about a Cambodian girl whose orphanage was closed.
Pisey is one of thousands of young people our research team has worked with around the world. She is 17 and working in a karaoke bar in Battambang, Cambodia. There she serves drinks and is required to exchange sex for money. She longs for her loving family.
Pisey had such a family a few years ago, but it wasn’t with her parents. Her mother and father were alcoholics who abused Pisey and her two younger sisters, leaving them to eat from a garbage pile. A social worker finally intervened and persuaded the parents to move them to a local orphanage. The orphanage provided what the girls had been missing: love and security with a consistent caregiver who lived with them, along with food, clean clothes and schooling. The girls found a loving family there.
Unfortunately, not long ago Cambodia began shutting down orphanages to reunite children with their biological families, so the three girls returned home. Pisey was not allowed to continue with school but rather had to begin earning money for her parents and her sisters’ school fees. Being young and without a degree, her best available option was to become a karaoke girl.
The essentials ring true. Most children in orphanages are not orphans, but they do come from poor families, and many of their families have problems. When an orphanage is closed and the children and youth are sent home, there are obvious risks. The Cambodian government has had organizations working diligently in cases when orphanages are closed to guide and monitor the reintegration process, but it’s extremely challenging work. Many children are smoothly reintegrated, but not all.
But here are a few thoughts.
- Very few orphanages have been closed in Cambodia. An orphanage has to have significant and serious issues going on to earn that distinction. To say that Pisey had a loving family in an orphanage slated for closure is leaving out lots of information. It was likely a bad place.
- The author says Pisey was 17. Her choice to become a karaoke girl calls into question what was happening with her identity and character during those years in the orphanage. She may have been pressured by her family, or she may have balked at a regular job or wanted more money than she could normally earn. It’s troubling what she did. Perhaps she succumbed to family pressure and the reintegration failed. Once again, we have the broad outlines of her story without the important details. “Her best available option was to become a karaoke girl.” Give me a break.
- It isn’t supposed to happen like this. Nobody wants to close an orphanage and take responsibility for all the children inside. That’s why only the very worst ones are forcibly closed. Closing an orphanage is a worst case scenario and nobody wins. Ideally, to reduce the overabundance of orphanages in Cambodia, responsible orphanages will voluntarily phase themselves out by not accepting new children and finishing the job with the ones in their care. The government has asked such orphanages to transform themselves into non-residential community and family-support centers.
All of these articles are about poverty and families making poor choices. There are no easy answers.
Cambodia has deep-rooted problems affecting children and their families. Orphanages are not easy answers. Family-based care is not an easy answer either. Reintegration. Restoring families. Prevention. Not easy. It’s going to take a lot of people working well together to put things right. That includes families and leaders in communities, organizations of all kinds, and government.
One thing is certain: things will get better only as Cambodian families and communities become stronger.