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Children are not the tourist attraction


Children are not the tourist attraction


Phnom Pehn| Cambodia


Begging children is one of the most difficult sights of Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia. There are so many of them living on the street, coming to people, tourists especially, asking for money and food. And a lot of people give them something, without realizing the consequences. Giving food and money to children condemn them to stay on the street, prevent them from going to school and accept help – at the end, on the street they can earn much more. What should we do then?

Cambodia is a country where strange things are happening - says James Sutherland, International Communications Coordinator at Friends International. For example people think it is a good idea to organize tours to orphan houses. We are leading a campaign: “Children are not a tourist attraction”. ¾ of the children in orphan houses are not orphans, they have parents. Some parents sell kids to earn money. We say no to orphan tourism, but we also say no to people who give money to begging children. It keeps them in this situation. It’s one of our seven rules for responsible tourism. Rather, give funds to organizations which help them to go out of this kind of life.

And Friends International is definitely one of them.

Friends International is a social enterprise found 21 years ago here in Phnom Penh with the aim of reintegrating marginalized children back to society. By marginalized we mean streets children, children with no access to education and health care, with problems in family, basically not functioning in society. The founders of Friends International were young people who travelled the world themselves. They realized that despite millions of dollars coming to Cambodia, there were many kids still sleeping on the street. They decided to do something about it, without expecting that 21 years after they will be still here.

The founders didn’t really have an NGO background, they were more connected with business. And they used it to create sustainable solutions.

It’s difficult to base only on donors. Donors are fantastic, but sometimes they change your priorities. From the very beginning social entrepreneurship was the main idea. Finding jobs for young people, but also creating them. Here in Cambodia we have tailors, restaurants, a garage with mechanics, we have a construction team to set up air-con, basically we opened something in any field needed in Cambodia. We also ensure that training which we offer to young people fit jobs availability.

But before they can even think about providing jobs to people in need, they have to find the way to involve them in their program.

We work directly with children and youth on the street. Every day 60+ people take motorbikes and in small teams go around the city. Every team has a social worker, a doctor, people dealing with drug addictions and they provide direct services. They literally save lives by making sure that those young people are safe, they have medical care. We teach them how to take care of themselves, we do non-formal education, we do sexual education, give them condoms, we also work with drug-abusing youth, we are the only organization in Cambodia which has license to provide clean needles to drug users. Ultimately we want them to join our program, to go out of drugs, but while they are still using we give safer options. As it is illegal, we had to create a special partnership with the government. We also have a center where people can go 24/7. We provide a place to sleep, to wash yourself, food, social workers to speak with. Our work is about building relations, finding out why they are in this point of their life. Most often there are families involved, only a tiny percent have no parents.

To help those young people Friends International needs to look at their situation as a whole, including the family and society the person lives in. Knowing the situation enough, they propose them to join a particular program.

Often they don’t manage to stay in the program from the first time, it requires to stop taking drugs, to join the classes etc. But our doors are never closed. We are always here for them. Some youth are coming to us for years. We work with them where they are, sometimes on the street, sometimes in jail. We offer access to education, training and opportunity to generate income. We also work with families, some of them say they can’t afford to send kids to school, so we help them to earn money, sometimes by supporting them in opening small businesses, sometimes by giving them production skills. We buy products from them and sell in shops. We look at the market in the city we work in and we match the skills to what the city needs.

The most successful among the many social businesses opened by Friends International are restaurants. They even created a know-how package which they share with other NGOs, creating partnerships and new opportunities.

The partnership part is very strong. We have alliances with other organizations from all over the world, doing the same kind of work. We share practices, training, we help each other to find funds, so we have a bigger impact together. We are also part of the global child protection movement. We started 10 years ago in Phnom Penh, we knew that child protection was a very important part of our work. We train key people in communities to be child protection representatives, who know how to react. In Cambodia most often they are tuk-tuk drives.

They encourage tuk-tuk drivers to join the program by giving them visibility and the feeling that their job is important. They also involve hotels and restaurant workers and many other people who may see and react in case of any violence toward children. It’s important to empower and involve local people, teach them how to react, how to work and act.

As foreigners we basically never work directly with kids. We train and support national stuff but it’s them to help the children at the end. The same we recommend regarding volunteering. So many people come with this idea to volunteer for a few days. “What kind of skills and experience in working with children do you have?” “None, I speak some English, I want to help.” The best thing you can do is to go to the beach, but before giving blood. Or buy your souvenirs from a social enterprise. Don’t go to kids for a few days. It may be a life changing experience for you, but most of the cases it doesn’t help children, or even worse – it harms them. It’s important to build local people capacity. They will stay here and they can make a real, sustainable change.

As James said himself, his goal is to not be needed here. To hand out everything to local people, who using local resources will be able to manage things themselves. As a foreigner, he tries to be in the background, support, pass his skills. Observe the change happening. And make it audible.

For three years we used to go to one of the restaurants and there was one girl selling flowers. Every time I saw her I repeated: “You shouldn’t be here, you should be at school. You can find a way out”. And she answered: “Shut up, come on”. We had those conversations quite often. She would come a week later and say to me: “yeah, you won’t buy”. Few months ago I joined one of our events. One woman approached me to ask if I remember her. “I used to sell flowers in the restaurant. Now I learned to be a hairdresser”. That’s why I’m here, why all of us are here. There are real heroes changing people's lives and my work is to make sure the world knows about it.


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