According to UNICEF, 50 percent of Cambodian children have experienced severe beating while one in four and one in 20 respectively have been emotionally abused and sexually assaulted. Many children are trafficked or forced to work. While the situation is dire in the country, many people refuse to just stand and watch. Among those are a group who call themselves “ChildSafe Agents”. Trained by NGO Friends-International, these men and women, unpaid volunteers, look out for underage victims all over the Kingdom. Taing Rinith documents the life and work of these guardians on the street.
It’s a Saturday morning. Yang Moeun, a 53-year-old tuk tuk driver, rises from his bed, reheats some leftovers from the previous night’s dinner for breakfast and prepares for his work that day. He opens his closet and takes out a blue shirt bearing the phrase, “I protect children”. It is Moeun’s favourite shirt and he wears it proudly.
Two hours later, Moeun is on the road, driving his tuk tuk while looking for customers. Suddenly, he sees a foreign man holding hands with a small Cambodian girl in front of a guesthouse. It is difficult to know immediately whether the girl is underage, but Moeun can’t afford to take the risk. He too has a daughter, whom he loves more than anything in his life. So Moeun takes out his phone and and dials the hotline dedicated to reporting suspected child abuse, giving the information to the police.
While Moeun will never know if the foreigner was apprehended, he knows he has fulfilled his obligation as a Child Safe Agent.
“I may look like a gentle guy, but when I meet paedophiles, it’s the end for them,” says Moeun. “Children are to be protected, and no one, Khmer or foreigners, can harm them or walk away freely if they do so.”
Moeun is one of 700 ChildSafe agents currently patrolling the streets of Phnom Penh. But his mission is to protect children everywhere in the country.
“I signed up in 2005 when the recently created child protection NGO, Friends-International, did a call out for agents for their ChildSafe initiative,” he explains.
On joining, Moeun underwent training to identify dangerous situations involving children as well as to protect those children and intervene if necessary. In the past 15 years, he has saved a number of underage victims from sexual assault, violence, bullying and other kinds of abuse.
“Although I’m not paid for it, I am happy to do it,” Moeun says. “After 15 years, I notice that we are reporting much less about child sexual abuse now.”
Hul Sorn, 55, another tuk tuk driver who volunteered to become ChildSafe agent in 2005, says he sometimes has to give up his passengers in order to help suffering children on the street. Although it means a loss of income, Sorn said he is more than happy to do it. So far, he has saved more than 10 children from terrible fates.
“Most of the children I’ve saved are those beaten by bigger kids or drug addicts and those injured in traffic accidents,” explains Sorn. “I take them to the hospital or the Friends-International office in my tuk tuk.”
Having lived in an underprivileged area in Phnom Penh himself, Sorn says it’s not unusual to hear of neighbours planning to sell their children or wanting them to drop out of school so they can work to help the family.
“I don’t think it is fair for those poor children to suffer,” he says. “Although they are small and young, no one has the right to drive them to their doom; not even their parents.”
Sorn adds that he usually receives praise from his passengers for wearing a shirt and having a poster on his tuk tuk promoting child safety. If anyone gets into his tuk tuk with a partner who looks suspiciously young, on dropping them off, Sorn immediately informs Friends-International who will then investigate.
“’Theary” (a fake name) works at a club in Phnom Penh’s nightlife area near the riverside, but underneath, she is also a ChildSafe agent, who looks out for children who enter the area to find money by begging or selling various things to the people out for the evening.
“There are all kinds of people coming out late at night and we can never know what they want to do,” says Theary. “The training given by Friends-International allows me to identify when children are at risk. No matter where they are, children must be protected. I want everyone to protect them like me.”
Last year, the Child Protection Unit announced it recorded more than 1400 crimes against children. A few days later, Action Pour Les Enfants, an anti-paedophile NGO, announced that it cooperated with authorities to crack down on 18 child sex cases involving more than 10 foreigners last year.
Meanwhile, Friends-International dub all their ChildSafe agents “Everyday Heroes” thanks to their effort and devotion in protecting children everywhere from paedophiles and abusers and other offenders.
James Sutherland, International Communication Coordinator, says that the ChildSafe agents are recruited and trained because Individuals are often disempowered or simply do not know how to react to situations of abuse amongst children.
“We are working with people who are on the street and know how to identify those who are at risk,” he said. “So for the last 15 years, we have trained tuk tuk drivers, restaurant and hotel workers and vendors in how to protect children. We now have the programme in other countries such as Thailand, Myanmar and Laos.”
According to Vann Khemreth, the FI International Coordinator with all-over responsibility for the ChildSafe agent program, there are almost 2,000 ChildSafe agents throughout Cambodia, who have been doing remarkable jobs on rescuing child victims.
“Most of the cases are children on the street who are sick and our agents’ intervention prevented their deaths,” says Khmereth. “Many of those children are now studying in our vocational programmes. And thanks to our agents, we’ve also assisted police in arresting the offenders who commit these crimes against children.”