When poverty traps girls in a life of desperation

October 11 was the International Day of the Girl. Experience shows that families and communities do best when girls and women are empowered through education to reach their God-given potential. Poverty, exploitation, and gender discrimination are the biggest obstacles to this goal, as illustrated by the story of Heang and her five daughters in Cambodia.

By Lay Ratana and Kari Costanza
Published October 16, 2012 at 12:00am PDT

In Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, five girls sleep outside with their mother on an embankment near a river. Their dwelling has no electricity, plumbing, or walls.

The siblings are Sreynou, 9; Sreyny, 8; Sreyva, 5; Sreychea, 4; and Srey Poeu, 3. Their mother, Heang Neang, 32, is a widow whose husband died of malaria last year. She earns a meager $3 per day accompanying men at a karaoke bar.

While she works, the girls live on the street, begging for money from tourists or people walking at the nearby park.

Poverty keeps them out of school

Living on the street, the girls are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation — ordeals and experiences that no child should face. Sometimes, men try to use money to lure them into cars. Fortunately, the girls are wise enough not to fall into this trap.

For several years, World Vision staff members had talked to Heang about the importance of education and sending her children to school. However, the single mother was deeply reluctant — after all, she needed the money that her daughters earned from begging.

“My family is very poor; I cannot send my children to school,” Heang originally said. “My children could help to earn money for living and support their younger sisters.”

Reaching out

Tieng Chansopheap, a World Vision worker, says that the girls are inseparable, implying that if even one of them doesn’t go to school, neither will the others. “Even though Sreyny and her sisters are facing a lot of difficulties, they love each other. Sreynouch or Sreyny have never [gone] anywhere alone; they always walk or do everything together.”

Heang says she’s proud of her girls. “Even though I am poor, my children are so cute and smart,” she says. “Sreynou and Sreyny wander to beg for money at markets in the morning and come back in the afternoon. Sometimes each of them able to earn 10,000 riel a day (about U.S. $2.50), but sometimes they earn less.”

Every week, children peers from World Vision’s Bamboo Shoot children’s center in Phnom Penh stop by to visit the girls and their friends. They teach Sreynouch, Sreyny, and their friends how to maintain basic health and hygiene — critical issues for children who dwell on the streets.

“My children take shower once or twice a day,” says Heang. But a look at the children’s dirty faces makes this claim hard to believe.

A new perspective

Slowly, World Vision’s presence in the life of Heang’s family is giving this mother a change of heart.

“If my children have knowledge, they will [have a] good future,” says Heang. “Before, I insisted not [to] send my children to school, because I don’t want to [be] far away from them, and I need them to help me to support the family.

“Now, I want my children learn skills. I want all children go to Bamboo Shoot center.”

Living on the street, the five girls cannot avoid getting sick with ailments like fevers, colds, and coughs. In fact, they become ill so often that Heang sometimes has to borrow money to treat her children.

Dreams for the future

Such is the reality of a family trapped in vicious poverty. Heang admits that she has given thought to suicide at times — but her five daughters have given her the will to carry on.

And despite the bleak circumstances that have characterized their young lives, these girls have God-given potential that could be realized — if only they were given a chance to stay in school.

For example, Sreyny is able to speak some English. She uses it to ask foreigners for money on the street. She also has dreams for her future.

“I want to be a hairdresser,” Sreyny says. “I can make other people’s hair shiny and smooth.”

But that’s not all. “When I go to Bamboo Shoot center, please do not get me back,” she tells her mother. “I want to get into Bamboo Shoot center because I want to learn [more] English.”

In commemoration of the first-ever International Day of the Girl, October 11, World Vision seeks to raise awareness of the desperate circumstances that girls face around the world at the hands of poverty, discrimination, and exploitation — and how empowering them can benefit not just their families, but entire communities.

Learn more

Visit the World Vision Blog to read more about our efforts to empower girls and women worldwide.

Three ways you can help

Please pray for girls and women who are trapped in situations of desperation and vulnerability because of poverty. Pray for the efforts of World Vision and other organizations to equip them to reach their God-given potential through education and other life-giving basics.

Make a one-time donation to World Vision’s Girls and Women in Crisis Fund. Your gift will help us provide care to vulnerable girls and women around the world through interventions like education, vocational training, small business loans, counseling, and more.

Sponsor a girl in need today. Your love and commitment will help equip and empower her through basics like education, nutritious food, clean water, medical care, safe shelter, and more. Investing in the life of a girl means investing in the health of an entire community.