In the poverty-ravaged neighborhoods of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, living conditions are atrocious, drug and alcohol abuse rampant, and domestic abuse “normal.” Here, children are especially vulnerable -- to hunger, illness, violence, and despair. And it gets worse. During the last decade alone, they have fallen prey to something even more horrifying: human trafficking.
Vulnerable children and young adults have been preyed upon by a dangerous, criminal element in the community, while heartless thugs have exploited them and forced them into prostitution.
These girls and boys (and often, their mothers) have become a tourist destination, used by wealthy international travelers who stream into the city’s seaport, the only one in all of Cambodia.
“It’s heartbreaking,” says Father Mark Hyde, director of Salesian Missions. “Impoverished women and children in Sihanoukville have little recourse, and slim chances to escape. As a result, travelers with no regard for their basic humanity or dignity use them for their own purposes, then discard them.”
“These girls and boys should be in school,” he continues. “Instead, they’re sentenced to a lifetime of hardship and cruelty on the streets.”
In response to this growing crisis -- and the conditions that contribute to it -- the Don Bosco Children Fund, a branch of the Don Bosco Foundation Cambodia, recently launched a new multifunctional center for children in the city. The center includes a kindergarten, nursery, day care center, and shelter.
The need for such support was so obviously critical that before construction was even complete -- and before Salesian missionaries could even publicize the project -- mothers lined up to enroll their children. Already, the kindergarten class has 15 children; 10 more are in the nursery and 2 live at the shelter full-time.
Most of these children were in bad shape when they arrived. According to Brother Roberto Panetto, coordinator of the center, they all suffered some form of physical and/or emotional neglect. Some had never been vaccinated and were ill; others lived on the streets with single mothers addicted to drugs or alcohol. One 10-year-old girl could not read, write, or count. Without meaningful intervention, all of these precious children would have been at high risk for exploitation.
“At the center, these children have nutritious meals, baths, and clean clothes,” says Bro. Roberto. “They see a doctor when needed, they receive attention, can play in a safe environment and -- most importantly -- they are prepared for primary school.”
Once the children complete kindergarten, the Don Bosco Foundation -- whose basic belief is “a child in school is a child out of the reach of human trafficking and labor exploitation” -- offers educational continuity. In operation since 1992, it provides scholarships to children in need, and works to guarantee that children can attend primary and secondary school while having the necessary academic, social, and even nutritional support to succeed. Once a child completes 9th or 12th grade, he or she can apply for a two-year program at Don Bosco Technical School -- with opportunities to specialize in hotel management, information technology, automotive mechanics, electrician training, and other job skills.
“Education is one of the most crucial factors in determining whether or not a child can escape the chains of poverty,” says Bro. Roberto. “This is why we hope to expand the center, so that even more children have the opportunity for a dignified future.”
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