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