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Cambodia: Protecting young people against trafficking

I recently had an opportunity to visit Cambodia as part of Save the Children’s Cross Border Programme focused on anti-trafficking and reducing risky migration.  Here are some of my thoughts from the trip:

The Fountain of Youth

We spent several days visiting the programmes of Save the Children’s partner in Cambodia, the Children and Life Association, run by the ever-young and effervescent Buth Saman.  A survivor of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979), Buth Saman has helped transform this rural part of south-east Cambodia into a burgeoning survivor centre for trafficked young girls, offering support and vocational training, an organic farm that everyone seems to take great pleasure in cultivating and a place that is bubbling with excitement and possibility.  As a gorgeous sun set across the arid and bare paddy fields, she excitedly pointed out what would soon become a fish pond, a composting area and chicken coup.  With help from multiple donors, the centre was beginning to take shape.  In our introductory meetings, we met her team of youth advisors and programme associates — many have overcome their own situations of severe vulnerability — who outlined their vision and the days ahead.

The young protecting the young

Youth groups or Youth Coordinating Councils make up a key part of the Children and Life Association’s anti-trafficking initiatives.  These councils reach out to adults through creative awareness-raising. A well conceived ‘street play’ depicts the vulnerability that so many children face, and instigates discussions on ways to keep children safe.  They also work in coordination with adult Child Protection Networks.  We heard time and again from adults how young people had inspired them to learn more about protection and to become part of the civil society group that monitored and acted on protection issues together with the young people.

Child Protection Networks

Together with the youth councils and other children and young people, the networks have helped make some significant changes in children’s lives. One network, in the village of Prey Chamar Choeung, knew that a lot of children in their area were taken to Thailand and other parts of the country for begging or other, worse forms of work, but they had always felt powerless to do much about it.  In a little over one year of existence, the network took extensive surveys in their village and began advocating with other adults, often door-to-door, about ways to keep children safe from risky migration or trafficking.

They started a small ‘savings bank’ to support their own activities. With support from the Children and Life Association, they helped form ‘father-to-father’ and ‘mother-to-mother’ peer groups, and took practical measures such as helping the some of the poorest households start small kitchen gardens, and helping adults deal with substance abuse.

All of this has paid off:  adults and youth alike agreed that Prey Chamar Choeung was a much safer village. In fact, one member proudly told me that “we don’t see recruiters (traffickers) of children around any more. While some people may still migrate out of the village, those under the age of 18 are not leaving any more.”

Protection at District Level

We met a few members of the Mesang District Child Protection Network one afternoon in the shade of a thatched shelter. Many members of the network were government officials — police and medical officers, Ministry of Education and Sport officials and local administrators.  They had spearheaded awareness campaigns on safe migration and ways to act on trafficking, HIV and AIDS and substance abuse.

The Importance of Education

Knowing the summer months mean a lot of migration out of the region, this district-level network was concerned. Migrating 13-15-year-olds are most likely to drop out of school entirely.  They were working on strategies to keep children in school until the age of 18, convincing parents to consider the impact that migration has on their children.  They’d established an accelerated learning programme to help children catch up where they’d missed school.

“But these are stopgap measures,” said one network member. “Trafficking cases are now rare here, which we’re proud of, but we don’t know what will happen to young people once they leave here, so we keep looking for ways to improve our work.”

We heard all along that the work of Save the Children had been instrumental in kick-starting a lot of community initiatives. If there was one clear outcome of the monitoring mission for me, it would be that such a collaboration with dedicated partners and communities would be one of the wisest steps we could ever make.

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