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Working 12 hours a day to provide for her two younger siblings, a good night’s sleep is rare for Phhoung*. The softly spoken 13-year-old lives alone with her little brother and sister in Cambodia`s rural Svay Chrum District. “Since we live with only the three of us, I am afraid,” says Phhoung.

Their only source of protection is the huge machete that her brother keeps under his pillow. It’s a heavy burden to carry for a 10-year-old boy. “I am afraid people will come up to beat us, or kidnap us,” adds Phhoung. “At night, I am afraid of ghosts.”

These are not Phhoung`s only fears. At her age, she should be in school. But since her parents migrated to Phnom Penh to find employment three years ago, Phhoung has been working in child labour to keep her and her siblings off the street, weighed down by the responsibility of having their survival depend on her.

“Sometimes I get sick and there`s no one to take care of me,” says Phhoung, who rises at 5am to cook porridge, before cleaning the dishes, bathing her siblings and setting out to earn money to buy their daily food.

She comes home to cook lunch for her baby sister, before returning to work again in the afternoon, finally finishing her day at 5pm. “When it is rainy season, I go fishing. When it`s not, I sow rice seeds in the fields, or I collect cow dung to get money to buy some eggs or soy beans. Then I come back home to cook again.”

Phhoung sells the cow dung to a nearby house that makes sugar, earning the equivalent of AU$0.12 a basket. “I sell three or four baskets to get money to buy food for my siblings,” she says. “The rest of the money is given to my brother to go towards his schooling.”

Without any adults to care for them, the teen also has to take her siblings to the local health clinic, a three-kilometre bike ride away, when they fall ill. “When I take them to the clinic, I have to steer the bicycle with one arm, and carry them in the other,” she says.

This is what life is like for many children living in poverty. There are high levels of child labour in developing countries, leading to greater inequality and fewer opportunities for children like Phhoung, who are not in school.

Phhoung dropped out of Grade 6 to allow her little brother Ponleak* to continue his education, and sets aside some of her meagre earnings so her brother can attend class without going hungry.

“I am willing to stop,” she says. “I am the oldest in the family. And the little one won`t stop crying unless she is with me.”

The only way to end child labour is to provide opportunities for children in poverty. Phhoung wants Ponleak to have the opportunities she is missing out on. “When I see my friends going to school, I feel very regretful,” says Phhoung, who sees former classmates walk by each morning while she gets ready for work.

“I am not able to meet them any more. We used to play together.

“I also miss school. I am not able to study any more.”

Even when she was in school, Phhoung was burdened with worries over her siblings` safety. She tried bringing her two-year-old sister to class, but the toddler`s cries made it too hard for Phhoung to concentrate. “I feel content when I am near them because I am not worrying they`re going to get sick,” she says.

Still, her concerns for their future persist. “I am worried my brother and sister will be uneducated when they grow up. They won`t know anything when they go out to work and will fail, like me,” she says. “I want my baby sister to be able to study more than I can. I don`t know anything. That`s why I tell my siblings to study harder than I did.”

But Phhoung hasn’t given up all hope.

“I used to dream of returning to school,” she says. “When our family`s situation becomes better, I will be able to get back there.

“In my life, I am happiest when I go to school, and see my classmates having fun. If could finish Grade 9, it might be enough to become a team leader in a garment factory, so I can earn more money to send back to my mother and father.”

*Not their real names


A year since he happily restarted school, teenager Sokhom* from Cambodia’s rural Svay Chrum District often thinks of the children still labouring on the farm he once worked at. “When I see my friends still working, I don`t feel happy at all,” he says, with sadness in his eyes. “They should be in school.”

Sokhom was just 14 years old when he gave up his Grade 6 studies in order to support his family. However, this situation is not uncommon in Cambodia, with one in five school-aged children engaging in work.

“I quit because my family couldn`t afford for me to stay in school,” says Sokhom. “I quit to go digging and ploughing.”

Jobs are scarce in Sokhom`s district, located around 110km from Phnom Penh, and even when available, they are very poorly paid. Sokhom took up work on a local industrial farm, toiling from 7.00am through to the evening, to bring home just US$3.70 – US$4.90 a day.

The work, which involved digging and moving earth with hand-shovels and driving tractors, was hard and exhausting for Sokhom, and also dangerous.

“It was tiring, and made me sweat a lot,” recalls Sokhom.

“There were many children working. They were unhappy,” he says. “Some were ploughing and would try to put on the brake and got tossed out of the tractor. Some tractors got stuck and the drivers were tossed in the air. Some tractors even fell over.”

Earning money to help his family was difficult for Sokhom: “It was just tiring work,” he says. “I didn`t feel that happy. I knew children shouldn`t have to earn money when they are under 18 years old,” he adds. “Children can get sick, and tired.”

School was not the only sacrifice. Sokhom`s childhood was replaced with the weight of responsibility of providing for his family.

Six months into his labouring work, without education and proper protection, Sokhom was facing an uncertain future, all too common in places like Cambodia, where too many children are scarred by poverty.

Thanks to ChildFund Cambodia, which works closely with local communities on education projects that keep children from poor families in school, Sokhom was given a chance to return to his studies, and regain his childhood.

“ChildFund allowed me to go back to school. They support me with clothes, bags, books and a bicycle,” says Sokhom.

“I met new friends when I started Grade 6. The lessons weren`t that hard because I`d studied them once already,” adds Sokhom, who initially had to repeat Grade 6, but eventually passed.

Sokhom is now half-way through his Grade 7 studies.

“The lessons are a little hard, but I learnt to spell and think by myself. And I get to play with my friends,” says Sokhom, who loves to play volleyball. “I am happier in school.”

Sokhom now dreams of becoming a teacher. He knows that the best way to achieve his goal is by going to school and getting a good education: “If I could, I wish to graduate from Grade 12. I want to be a teacher so I can teach my own students.” Sokhom adds: “I want adults to encourage all children to go back to school.”

“Children should not work because it tires them out easily,” adds Sokhom. “They should go to school for their future.”