The importance of youth empowerment.
Every child growing up has dreams and aspirations for their future. Whilst cultural, social, and economic factors can sometimes hinder the nature of these goals, with the correct support, we believe all these factors can be overcome.
Many youths in Cambodia dream of a better future. It is commonly misconstrued that this can only be achieved by traveling overseas for better employment opportunities. But what happens when these innocent dreams are exploited? Youths that have never left the safety of their small rural villages, with high hopes and minimal education, are unaware of premeditated scams which leave them vulnerable to exploitation. With the continued closure of schools across the country and widespread loss of employment, we have huge concerns about disadvantaged children and youths not returning to school, and instead, falling victim to the manipulation of human trafficking.
“Modern-day slavery” constitutes of individuals being bought, forced or coerced into exploitative labor under false premises. Cambodia is ranked 9th out of 167 countries on the Global Slavery Index. As you are reading this, approximately 260, 000 Cambodians that were living in poverty have recently been sold lies of a promising future by traffickers, before being trafficked both within and across borders. At this moment in time, approximately 260,000 Cambodians are being forced to work in abhorrent environments for little to no pay or to debt bondages. At this exact second, thousands of them are trapped indefinitely at sea on fishing boats, working 20 hours a day, unknowing of the next time their feet will touch land.
Even more shockingly, many of them are under the age of 16 years old.
A teenage girl who sells balloons at one of the local markets in Siem Reap.
The Cambodian Women's Crisis Center (CWCC) handles around 300 trafficking cases every year, most of them involving Cambodian girls being sold or forced into prostitution. Underage girls are misled into believing that they will be given a job opportunity to help provide for their family, and instead, are sold into brothels and forced to have sex for money.
They will never see this money. Undocumented, underage and alone, these young girls are ostracised from their families who assume they are legally working for a fair wage. There is an estimated 15,000 – 20,000 prostitutes in Phnom Penh alone, with more than 15% estimated to be children under the age of 15 years old. UNICEF has reported that virgins can be sold for up to $800 which represents three times the country’s annual GDP per capita rate. Many turn to drugs, fall pregnant, and/or contract HIV. Even if they manage to escape, the shame and guilt to return home is often too much.
In 2020, the current concern is that of the 35% of Cambodians living under the poverty line, is that the households that sit above the bracket, only do so by a fraction. This restricts their ability to absorb any financial losses. World Bank reports that the loss of just $0.30 per day on an income would send an estimated 3 million more Cambodians into poverty. With so many having lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19, and schools still having not reopened, the situation right now is critical. Pure desperation and want for a better life combined with a lack of education surrounding these issues pose a huge risk to many men, women, and children in Cambodia.
This is an issue that is at the forefront of our minds; this is why we are tirelessly working to stay connected to our families and youths during the school’s closure.
To continue their education, students are expected to participate in E-learning for their public-school classes, which is an impossible task for those without access to the internet and computers. Our Cambodia charity is working in partnership with KOOMPI to ensure that our teenage students have access to their online learning resources in conjunction with their government school curriculum. This is bridging the gap between the students and their public-school teachers by ensuring that they are still actively engaging in their studies. In turn, this decreases the chance of them dropping out of school and falling victim to exploitative labor.
In direct correlation with our Youth Pathways program, we have selected interested youths to join our monthly team building bike rides through the countryside. Knowing how regular exercise positively impacts physical and mental health, we are excited to see our youths grow in strength and confidence. After the success of last month’s club ride, we plan to increase these sessions, starting in September we intend for our youths to head out into the fresh air and cycle 2-4 times per week.
Additionally, we have begun our collaboration with Kingdom Fight Gym through their foundation “Youth Matters” who are kindly providing our REACH Role Model teenagers with monthly training sessions in the traditional Cambodian martial art: Kun Khmer. KFG fundraise to ensure that this is free of charge for our NGO, we are very grateful for this support. Teenagers in our program cannot afford the small fees associated with playing sports on local fields or taking part in recreational activities so this is an opportunity that they will have never had before.
Our teenagers and staff members at the first training session kindly hosted by Kingdom Fight Gym
The teenagers that take an active role in our programs will be given the chance to become a REACH Role Model. This position is intended to empower our youths to act as mentors to our younger students. Our youths are also strongly encouraged to partake in volunteer work in Cambodia so that they can give back. This includes volunteering in our REACH Repairs Shop where the students take pride in fixing broken bicycles for children and families in the local community.
We recently brought a small group of teenagers to Silk Screen Printing lab where they participated in a socially distanced ethical trade workshop to create their own Role Model T-Shirts. The shirts logo was hand-drawn and designed by one of our students:
One of our REACH Role Models proudly creating his very own T-Shirt at the Silk Screen workshop.
We believe that these incentives and their continuous involvement in our program help to encourage our youths to continue studying hard, stay motivated, and deter them from the idea of giving up their education. By regularly seeing both our youths and our families, our dedicated social workers are able to closely communicate with them and monitor their situations.
Because of this close communication, our social workers were able to identify a situation of a 14-year-old student who was working a grueling 16 hours, every day per week, for just $80 USD a month. This works out at $2.60 USD per day. This meager wage from the local market was being used to support herself and her elderly grandmother who has been caring for her since her family left to work in Thailand. On Friday the 31st of July, her long days at the market were officially over; instead REACH is providing her a small stipend so that the grandmother can continue paying their rent. Now, this promising 14-year-old girl can focus on her studies, be a part of our supportive REACH Role Model community and stop bearing the weight of being the sole provider for their family.
We will continue to identify teenagers at risk and provide temporary stipends on a case by case basis. This is to ensure that staying in school is not at the detriment of their basic needs such as housing and food security.
We currently have 5 at-risk youths registered for stipends; our ability to provide these is dependent on our funding at hand. If you are able to, please consider donating regularly to our Running Costs Club, so that we can continue to support more teenagers through this crisis.
The harsh reality is that the youth in Cambodia making up a staggering 65.3% of the entire population, are second or third-generation offspring of the Khmer Rouge genocide survivors. By teaching our families that education is a long-term investment for the future, we are aiming for all of our students to complete school. Through integrated support and empowerment, we are positive that our families and youths will lead bright futures and achieve their dreams.
We are so passionate about investing in today’s youth, for they are the ones that will be tomorrow’s leaders.