More than half of all Cambodian children say they have experienced some form of physical violence before the age of 18, according to UNICEF. A quarter reported emotional abuse. Violence against children is so prevalent that it prompted a comprehensive national survey in 2013 aimed at overturning the widespread belief that violence is necessary or normal in a child’s upbringing.
The survey – a collaboration between the government of Cambodia and UNICEF – found that children who were abused were mainly harmed by people they knew and trusted such as mothers or male teachers. Around five per cent of young people aged 13 to 24 reported some form of sexual abuse prior to age 18.
Childhood sexual, physical and emotional violence is associated with a wide range of physical and psychological problems that stay with the children well into adulthood unless properly addressed. Childhood emotional violence contributed to 32.6 per cent of self-harm for females and 13.6 per cent for males in Cambodia, according to UNICEF. Childhood abuse is a taboo subject in Cambodia. To avoid the stigma, many remain silent.
Child Helpline Cambodia (CHC) was founded in 2009 in response to the need for children in Cambodia to have access to a nationwide, free and accessible helpline through which they can report an incident and receive confidential counselling.
The organisation provides free, 24-hour phone counselling, information, referral and follow-up services for children and youth up to 25 years old in Cambodia. It gives children and young people a way to reach out when they need it, in real-time, and speak directly with someone in a safe and confidential environment via the free helpline, website as well as through text messages.
CHC places children at the centre of decision-making, empowering them to speak out for themselves in a secure and trustworthy environment. Issues discussed range from bullying, body change and gender, to reproductive health, rights and sexuality. Many phone calls received by the organisation are silent calls, where the caller has taken the first step of dialling the number but are unable to go any further in discussing their concerns.
Through its community outreach work – which includes the use of youth ambassadors – sessions have resulted in actions that have prevented children and young people being abused, exploited through hard labour, exploited online and trafficked. CHC receives between 10,000 and 12,000 calls each month. In 2015, it received an average of 172 calls every day.
Photo: Lauren Crothers