I’m now in Sihanoukville spending time with the fantastic organisation M’Lop Tapang, which means “under the protection of the umbrella tree”. I survived Cambodian immigration and a 3.5 hour “seat-gripping” car journey down to the south west of the country which included an unscheduled stop to pick up a Buddhist Monk for a lift on the way.
The driver had but a few words of English and the Monk had none. I have about two words of poorly pronounced Khmer. It made for a particularly quiet car journey but we managed to some how communicate using our hands, facial expressions, body language and a lot of laughter – especially when our route was blocked by some free-roaming cows!
M’lop Tapang has been working with the street children of Sihanoukville since 2003. They currently work with over 1200 families and over 3500 children at ten specialised centres in the Sihanoukville area providing shelter, medical care, sports and arts, education and training, counseling, family support and protection from all types of abuse. But more of that at the end of the week…
The place I’m staying in Sihanoukville is a ChildSafe hotel. It is estimated that over 14000 street children live in Cambodia. The term “street children” is not one that I particularly like as it can label children inappropriately but it is really a short-hand way of saying “children who live or work on the streets or beaches of countries around the world”. All of these children are at greater risk of being abused and often have difficulty, for a variety of reasons, accessing healthcare including in an emergency. Units such as the one I work in back in Manchester don’t exist here and the children who are living or working on the streets are often dependent on healthcare being taken to them rather than expecting them to access fixed facilities. More about the mobile medical team, another time!
Travellers to countries such as Cambodia can often unwittingly and unknowingly increase the vulnerability of these children and it is for that reason, as someone who loves to travel, I’ve decided to write about the ChildSafe initiative.
ChildSafe doesn’t just work in Cambodia. They have projects running in Thailand, Lao PDR and Indonesia. They help to protect children on the beaches, on the streets, in internet cafés, in hotels and guesthouses, in restaurants, and in the transport and tuk-tuk industry.
There are seven simple ways you can help to better protect children in other countries and indeed back in the UK or the country where you live.
- Support ChildSafe Network members: Mototaxis, tuktuks, hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, internet cafés, tour operators and many others have been trained to protect children from abusive situations. You can look out for the ChildSafe logo or check out the website for further information
- Think twice before buying anything from children on the street, beach or at temples and don’t give money to begging children or parents with infants: buying things or giving money in this way helps keep them on the streets. If you have money to spare and want to donate then please find and support services that help these children have a better future. If you want to buy things then look out for the various shops that support the ChildSafe initiative such as Tapang’s
- Purchase ChildSafe certified products to support vulnerable children and their families: this is a really effective alternative to giving money directly to children. These products are made by parents so children can go back to school or they are made by former street children in training for they can find employment
- Be aware of the dangers of orphanage tourism: a lot of orphanages in this region do not have child protection policies in place to ensure the safety of children in their care. Good organisations do have policies in place and these should not allow visitors to just drop in and have access to children
- Don’t take children back to your hotel took with you, no matter how concerned you are: if you do want to help a child in need then refer to local social workers or ChildSafe referral partners who can help
- Avoid places that tolerate prostitution: with around one third of sex workers in the Mekong region being between 12-17 years of age, going to places that tolerate this form of sexual abuse supports an environment that places those vulnerable children at risk of significant harm
- Keep your eyes wide open – you will spot things if you look! If you see a child in danger then inform the local authorities or call one of the ChildSafe hotlines widely promoted in this region
So, how can this help us back at home? Well, for a start experiencing other cultures, other countries and the work of other organisations enhances our knowledge, makes us more attuned to the specific strengths and weaknesses of the communities that people live in, gives us a worldwide perspective to our work and enables us to more fully understand the background circumstances that some of our patients, or the people with whom we interact or work, may have come from.
Global tourism is big business. A significant number of people from within the UK travel abroad throughout the year and we have one of the busiest airports in the world in London bringing people to or through our country. But what can you do to help those children who might otherwise be harmed?
You don’t have to donate any money to be able to help those children in other countries who might be at risk of abuse; you don’t have to give of your time to try to reduce the chances of them being exploited and you don’t have to volunteer, or make significant changes to the way that you live or spend your holidays, to make a real difference to the lives of children which otherwise might be ruined by abuse, exploitation and trafficking.
What do you have to do? Well, it is very easy. All you have to do is to choose carefully and think is the service you are about to use, or the place you are about to stay, or the retailer you are about buy something from, “ChildSafe”. That’s it – simple really ;-).