The problem of children begging for money is not unique to Cambodia. Yet a travelling exhibition in Siem Reap and a new campaign by Cambodian NGO Friends International and ChildSafe to combat children begging, makes a case for why you should avoid giving money to child beggars, wherever they are, when you travel.

Giving Money to Child Beggars and the Baby Milk Powder Scam

Spend time in the Old Market quarter of Siem Reap and it won’t be long before you feel a tug on your sleeve. A small dirty palm will be thrust into your face, a tiny hand will rub an empty belly, and a dirty young street urchin with sad eyes will plead for a dollar to buy something to eat. It’s hard to resist. Cambodians, expats and tourists are all guilty of surrendering their small change.

Stick around and it won’t be long before you’ll be approached by the gang of baby milk powder scammers – several scruffy young ‘mothers’ carrying limp babies, which bewilderingly haven’t grown in years – who will reason with you that they don’t want your money, just baby milk powder to feed their ravenous infants. Once you’re out of sight, they’ll return to the mini-marts in on the scam to trade the tinned powder for a cut of the inflated price you were charged.

Decline their invitation and their aggressive response and impressive curses in perfect English will make you relieved you didn’t succumb to their charms. Disillusioned and despondent after the baby milk incident, don’t be surprised if you find yourself hoping to bump into one of those hungry little street kids so you can make amends and put everything right in the world.

Well, think again.

Think Before Giving to Begging Children

That’s what Friends International’s ChildSafe Network hopes you do after seeing their thought-provoking photography exhibition that they recently opened at Kaya Café* in Siem Reap. The exhibition will travel around Siem Reap.

Entitled ‘Think Before Giving To Begging Children’, the provocative collection of prints are by renowned French artist Pascal Colrat, whose work is in galleries and museums in Europe. The show includes powerful images such as a stencil of a boy and girl stamped on a wooden mousetrap with a pile of coins where the cheese would normally be placed.

The exhibition first launched at Marum restaurant in Siem Reap in late 2014, where Friends International’s Australian Technical Assistant Anna Jolly estimated some 7,000 tourists were exposed to the arresting visuals over a two-month period. The exhibition will now tour various venues around Siem Reap.

“It’s mainly tourists we’re targeting, but also Cambodians and expats,” Jolly tells me, as we look at the shocking image of a Barbie doll with bloodied stumps where her arms and legs should be.

“Expats also give even though they know it’s wrong, but giving is cross-cultural. For Cambodians, it’s cultural; it’s part of Buddhist practice,” Jolly explains.

“It’s human nature to see a hungry child and want to help. But the only thing it’s helping is to alleviate the discomfort you feel rather than supporting a positive outcome for the child.”

Friends International has designed the exhibition so that it’s mobile and they hope more venues will display the show to keep the message circulating. Their focus is Siem Reap’s town centre, where the practice of giving money to street children is at its worst.

600 Children Selling and Begging on Siem Reap Streets

In a snapshot study during a 24-hour period in 2014, when Friends International sent a team out onto the streets, staff counted some 600 children selling and begging on Siem Reap’s streets. Jolly explains that if the children are selling things they will be begging as well. They call these kids ‘street-working children’.

Of those 600 children, there are about 20 ‘street-living children’, who are homeless, have lived on the streets since they were young, and scavenge and beg, according to Cambodian William Sourn, Outreach and ChildSafe Community Project Manager at Friends International-Kaliyan Mith’s Siem Reap drop-in centre.

Sourn tells us that they have a case management file for every street-living child and caseworkers and social workers monitor the children’s situation. The hope is that one day they’ll be able to get the kids off the street and into non-formal education and vocational activities and reintegrate them into the community.

Non-formal education includes remedial classes to catch children up so they can reintegrate to public school. They also offer education in life skills, including workshops on HIV, nutrition, hygiene, child rights, safe migration, and drugs.

The ages of the street-living children range from five to 20 years old and while I speak to Sourn in a light-filled room at the drop-in centre, decorated with colourful drawings and paintings and shelves crammed with children’s books, a couple of homeless teenage boys who have been out on the streets all night are taking a nap on the mats on the balcony.

The kids arrive in the morning after the drop-in centre doors open to rest and shower and the centre provides snacks in the morning and in the afternoon. It does not, however, provide a bed or full meal.

“The gate is open and we won’t turn them away. They can come here if they’re tired but the doors close at 5pm. It sounds harsh, I know,” Jolly admits.

“Our strategy is ‘tough love’, like our attitude towards handing out money to begging children. We give enough to sustain the children, but we try not to make life on the street too easy.”

A Strategy for Success in Getting Kids off the Street

Jolly explains that the idea of getting the children to the drop-in centre is also to mobilise them and explain what services they offer, from the non-formal education services and life-skills classes to a more structured vocational training programme, and even micro-financing to establish a small business. They also offer optional sporting and recreational activities on weekends.

When they are ready to make the change they have a transitional home they can stay at with three meals a day, but they need to commit to a programme of vocational training.

The doors to the transitional home are also open for children who do non-formal education and public school reintegration, as well as providing a safe shelter for children who they are trying to reintegrate into their families. 

“Working with the street-living children is very difficult,” Sourn admits. “Especially if they are addicted to drugs, like glue-sniffing. We’ve only been able to get 2% off the streets and reintegrate them into the community. It’s difficult because they don’t like to follow our schedule. They have their own rules.”

Sourn reveals that they have greater success with the street-working children, who sell things, but live at home, go to school for part of the day, and then, at the encouragement or direction of their parents, hit the streets for the rest of the day.

At a garbage-dump site community not far from Siem Reap, Sourn says that Friends International and Kaliyan Mith have had a 95% success rate at diverting street-working children into vocational training at their mechanics school, beauty salon and restaurant, Marum.

“It’s slow work for street-living children, and for street-working kids as well,” Sourn says. “As long as there are opportunities to make money they’ll keep seeking them. But it’s something that we’re not going to give up on because we can see the results are so great when we can get them off the streets and back to school.”

According to Jolly, in 2014 some 266 kids attended the drop-in centre for informal classes, an average of 30-40 a day, however, even so, they only had 12 children participating in remedial classes, all of whom they were able to re-integrate into school when the new year started.

“It’s a slow process, as William was saying, especially for the street-living children,” Jolly elaborates. “It’s a very slow turnaround, but the Friends International model has been fine-tuned over 20 years in Cambodia, so it does work.”

One of the keys to success, according to Jolly, is that they make education very accessible and fun for the youngsters, for whom a classroom environment might be intimidating or embarrassing because they can’t read or write. Instead, they offer learning through play and non-formal techniques.

“We offer informal education on a rolling schedule,” Jolly explains. “So that means they don’t have to be there at a certain time of day, which we know is difficult for street-living kids, as that’s not really how they roll.”

We get to see a class in action at the drop-in centre. It’s very relaxed and casual and the students, who greet us with smiles, are obviously glad to be there. They look a lot happier than the youngsters we see begging on Siem Reap’s streets.

“We just want people to stop giving them money”

“We just want people to stop giving them money,” Sourn says. “It’s much better for the children and their families that people support our other activities.”

Sourn suggests that people buy the products made by the children’s caretakers, everything from funky wallets and purses made from recycled newspapers to pretty necklaces crafted from fabric remnants, because that money helps the caretakers to support their families so they don’t have to send the kids out on the streets.

Friends International sells these products in the shops at their restaurants, including Marum in Siem Reap and Romdeng in Phnom Penh, and the Made in Cambodia market, while other outlets also stock them (see below).

“Obviously we can say to tourists “go buy our products” and we can plug ourselves, however, there are also other ways that people can alleviate that discomfort they feel when they’re confronted by a child begging and that’s by supporting the people that support us,” Jolly suggests.

Keeping Children Safe Through the ChildSafe Network

Friends International has 50 hotels and guesthouses, 15 travel agent partners, and 180 tuk tuk drivers in Siem Reap registered with the ChildSafe Network that support the principles to keep children safe. There are partners in other cities and towns in Cambodia also. The partners undergo ChildSafe training and in order for them to keep their registration as partners they have to do periodic refresher training. There are also 25 information spots around Siem Reap that distribute the ChildSafe seven tips brochures.

The tuk tuk drivers are easily identifiable by their ChildSafe shirts that the kids know and they have banners on the back of the tuk tuks in Khmer with the ChildSafe symbol and phone numbers. They are ChildSafe’s eyes and ears and the street kids can often be seen hanging out with them around the Pub Street area, in Siem Reap, because they know they’ll be protected.

Sourn, as a Child Protection Officer, is the key person who educates partners and staff on the child protection system to ensure they comply with the code of conduct, and they are required to report worrying behaviour to him if there is something that he should investigate. He then works with the relevant partner or involves the local authorities, especially the police.

Sourn also manages the ChildSafe hotline, which anyone can call 24 hours a day to report a child who is at risk. Any reports coming from the community, whether they’re from tourists, expats or Cambodians, go to Sourn.

As Jolly points out, everything is interlinked – the outreach to the street-working and street-living children, child protection, training on ChildSafe principles, and the ChildSafe hotline – and this holistic approach is another key to Friends’ success.

While the exhibition at Kaya Cafe is mainly targeted at tourists, Friends has also just launched a campaign for Cambodians, and created 7 Citizen Tips in Khmer, like the “7 Better Ways to Protect Children” ChildSafe traveller tips that they created for tourists.

“We’re working with village chiefs, commune councils, police, and other authorities,” Jolly explains. “We’re training them on these new citizen tips, which are quite close to the travellers tips, except the ones that are specific to Cambodian citizens are things like ‘keep your children at home, don’t send them to an orphanage’, and of course, ‘don’t give begging children money’”.

“Some people say, well, it’s out of generosity that they give,” Sourn says. “And I recognise this, but giving the children money keeps them on the street. When there is potential to get something, the problem will remain.”

What You Can Do Instead of Giving Money to Child Beggars

  • Resist the urge to give to street kids to assuage guilt by recognising that your small act of charity doesn’t alleviate the larger problem, and a holistic approach is needed.
  • Give instead to the organisations that are helping genuine beggars, the homeless, and street children.
  • Use the Friends International social businesses, including their restaurants and beauty salon; buy a cookbook; and/or buy the products from the Friends’n’Stuff outlets that are made by the children’s caretakers (parents, older siblings, extended family, guardians etc) – if the caretakers can bring in additional income to support the family they’re less likely to send children begging.
  • Support and donate to Friends International or similar NGOs that provide services that support and assist street children to reintegrate into their community and school and undertake vocational training so they can obtain good jobs.
  • Support some of the ChildSafe partners and businesses that support Friends, including 50 hotels and guesthouses, 15 travel agents, and 180 tuk tuk drivers in Siem Reap (as well as other Cambodian cities) that are registered with ChildSafe to keep children safe. Their details are listed on the ChildSafe website.
  • Spread the word! Tell other travellers about the exhibition, the problem and the issues, and if you see travellers giving money to children and have the opportunity to explain what you’ve learnt, please do so.
  • If you’re a Siem Reap business willing to host the exhibition, do get in touch with Friends International.
  • In Siem Reap, the Green Gecko Project is another organisation that supports former street kids. You can help by donating money or gifts, fundraising, or purchasing products from their online gift shop.
  • Click through to and ‘Begging for Life: from Manila to Malmo’, an eye-opening documentary which investigates the growing global phenomenon of organised begging.

UPDATED: June 2016
* Kaya Cafe closed this month.

If you have any questions or comments about the issue or exhibition, we’d love to hear from you in the Comments below.

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