In Cambodia, a country whose economic index consistently ranks lower than the regional Asia-Pacific average, many strides have been made in recent years in order to alleviate poverty levels, strides that have moved the country into the lower-middle class. Attempts to meet the Cambodian Millennium Development Goals, or CMDG’s, have also prompted successful efforts aimed at poverty alleviation, resulting in a decrease in poverty levels from 50% in 2007 to below 20% in 2012, according to the Cambodia Socio-Economic Survey.

Despite these broad strokes of progress in recent years, a third of the Cambodian population continues to live below the national poverty line, which was set at US$0.61 (R2,470) in 2007. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has also revealed that close to 40% of Cambodian children suffer from hunger, while 22% of the population continues to live in severe poverty.

Cambodia has struggled to recover from the legacy left behind by the Cambodian genocide —conducted by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge — that killed an estimated 3 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. One of the legacies of Pol Pot’s reign of terror, for instance, can be observed with regards to the structure of Cambodian demographics. Due to the Khmer Rouge’s systematic targeting of senior citizens, who were considered unfit to work as farmers in the Cambodian countryside, and the significant baby-booms that occurred at the conclusion of Pol Pot’s reign in the 1980s and 1990s, youths now make up a disproportionate percent of the Cambodian population. Out of a total population of 14.0 million, around 5.1 million (49.5%) are children under the age of 18.

Of this 49.5%, studies have also found that about 18% of children age 5 to 17 are engaged in economic activities, with the average age at which a child starts working set at 10.4 years old. These children are deemed street children, for as defined by the United Nations, “any boy or girl for whom the street in the widest sense of the word has become his or her habitual abode and/or source of livelihood, and who is inadequately protected, supervised or directed by responsible adults.”

A study conducted by the Cambodian Street Children Network (CSCN) discovered that these children take to the street for a variety of reasons. Traditional norms in Cambodian society, for instance, foster a mentality in which all members of the household are expected to contribute to the family’s livelihood. The fact that poverty is widespread in Cambodian society and that only 7% of occupations can earn more than US$3 a day, while 38% of occupations yield less than US$1, contributes to a scenario in which income generated from begging comes to be regarded as a “career;” especially as it can yield up to $15 a day in tourist-dense regions such as Siem Reap, home to the Angkor Wat mega-complex. Add to this the fact that many of these street children come from outer provinces in order to escape or alleviate poverty at home, have lost at least one parent or are orphaned by diseases such as AIDS — it is no wonder that the street is regarded as an opportune place to reap a profit.

In addition to these contributing factors, Cambodia also has a weak law enforcement set in place to protect street children. For instance, despite a Labor Code which establishes the minimum age for employment at 15 years, CSCN has noted that there is a pervasive and blatant disregard for this law, and others. According to the latest CSCN study, conducted in 2011, children under the age of 18 engage in a variety of street activities including, but not limited to, begging. The study found that, among various activities, 19% engaged in begging, 17% in scavenging, 7% in construction work, 5% in selling petty goods, 5% in stealing and 3% in picking insects.

The phenomenon of Cambodia’s street children is inextricably connected to Cambodia’s levels of poverty and its current ineffectiveness in dealing with a significantly youthful population. In light of this, it is thus important to reflect that Cambodia has been making strides to alleviate levels of poverty within the country since the 1990s. Many organizations, such as the CSCN, the Anjali House, an education center created for former street children in Siem Reap, and the ChildSafe hotlines, managed by English-speaking Khmer social workers, have also been set up in recent years in order to directly address the issue of Cambodia’s many children who take to the streets to survive.

However, in order to most effectively rescue Cambodia’s street children, more drastic steps need to be taken to alleviate poverty and to strengthen a corrupt and failed justice system — factors which ultimately foster and enable a Cambodian street child’s existence.

– Ana Powell

Sources: Asian Development Bank, Cambodian Street Children Network Canodia, The Heritage Foundation World Bank
Photo: Campus Gup Shup


  • Fact: Every day, in Cambodia, parents sell their children for sex.
  • Fact: Many Cambodian parents decide to sell their children, some of whom are as young as one month old, because they feel that selling their own flesh and blood is the only way to survive.
  • Fact: There has emerged in Cambodia an ugly market of virginity, in which rich and powerful men coerce mothers into selling their daughters’ innocence.
  • Fact: Cambodia does not have an anti-trafficking law on the books.

Svy Pak is a shanty town on the outskirts of the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. It is one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of one of Asia’s poorest cities. The population lives on less than $2 per day. As such, a child’s virginity is considered to be an extremely valuable asset because of the prices willing to be paid for it. Doctors in Cambodia perform what’s known as a “virginity check” on a child and then issue a “certificate of virginity.” This is meant to ensure buyers who want virgins that they are getting them. In some cases, a child’s virginity is sold before he or she is even born, and deposits for virginities can be easily made on toddlers. Selling one’s child for sex provides a steady source of income for families willing to make the sacrifice.

The child sex trade has blown up in Svy Pak. The town is known to pedophiles around the world as the go-to place for buying little girls. In 2008, Apage International Missions (AIM) found that 100 percent of the kids in the town between the ages of eight to 12 years of age were being trafficked for sex. The organization has rescued children as young as four years old from traffickers. UNICEF estimates that one third of the population in the sex industry is children in Cambodia, and amounts to 40,000 to 100,000 kids total.

Cambodia is a country where children have a long history of being a major export product. A young girl by the name of Kieu was sold by her mother at the age of 12. Over the course of six months, her mother sold her virginity and then forced her to work at five brothels in both Cambodia and Vietnam. Only when her mother began to make arrangements at the sixth brothel to rent her daughter out for sex did Kieu run away to find safety. CNN spoke to her mother, who said, “It was because of the debt, that’s why I had to sell her.”

The men who abuse these children fit many different profiles and backgrounds. Some are pedophile sex tourists who actively seek out sex with prepubescent children. Others are more opportunistic, situational offenders who simply take advantage of opportunities that present themselves to engage in sex with children. Then there are those for whom health-related beliefs about the protective or restorative qualities of virgins catalyze their interest in child sex.

Sex tourists tend to come from affluent countries all over the world, such as European countries, South Korea, Japan and China. But research suggests that Cambodian men remain the main exploiters of child sex trafficking in their country. Although the selling and buying of sex is illegal, not one Khmer man has ever been convicted for purchasing virgins. The police argue that they are limited in prosecuting these violations because of a lack of expertise, technical equipment and evidence collection tools. Corruption is also a barrier for law enforcement, as Cambodia is number 160 of the 175 countries on the Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.

The actions of the parents in Cambodia who sell their children for sex is deplorable and inexcusable. Since the beginning of time, people have been poor, but they have not always been selling their children. Something must be done.

– Erika Wright

Sources: ABC, CNN 1, CNN 2, The Guardian, Spiegel Online
Photo: Brandon Patoc Photography