Our Lighthouse in Cambodia recently marked its fifth birthday, with party hats, cakes, balloons, games and giggling at the heart of the celebrations. But for one of the girls in our care, who recently turned five, this was the first birthday party she had ever been to.
Before coming to our Lighthouse – an aftercare centre for children who have been exploited – she, her sister of seven and their young female cousin were “loaned” out to work for a stranger.
Their relatives were living on the street in a plastic lean-to shack at the time. The family travel from place to place, picking up irregular construction work to try and earn a living.
Maggie Crewes, Hope for Justice’s Cambodia Director, said: “Together, these three young girls were taken away to the capital, Phnom Penh, and forced to beg from sunup to sundown.
“Day after day they were pushed in front of strangers to ask them for money. The earnings from their hard work were taken from them. Sometimes passers-by would give them food or water instead of cash. This made their trafficker angry and she would beat and abuse them. There was no birthday cake here, not even a decent meal – barely enough rice to fill their tummies. They had no bath, no toilet, no clean clothes.”
It was during this time of exploitation that a police officer patrolling the capital stopped the ‘minder’ of these three young children after observing her pushing them up to cars to beg.
The officer asked to see the woman’s family book – formal documentation to prove she was the legal guardian of the children. Her failure to produce this resulted in her immediate arrest. The girls were taken into care and referred to Hope for Justice as victims of forced labour and exploitation.
Since arriving at our Lighthouse this summer, they have been safe. They have received shelter, good hygiene, treatment for various medical problems, nutritious meals and opportunity to rest and reclaim their childhoods.
Our team is currently working to trace their family. If it is safe to do so, they will be reintegrated back with their relatives, or alternatively, into other family-based care.
Maggie said: “Their situation has many challenges but we are determined that we will do whatever it takes to get these children placed into safe, family-based care where they can be free to live again as children, and not as forced beggars – yes, even at the tender age of five.”