This post originally appeared on Beacon Reader and is reprinted here with permission.
“Susadey, srei sa-art.”
It’s the cheerful greeting I receive in Cambodia. Hello, pretty sister.
Srei means sister, and is the polite way of referring to a woman, so it’s a word I hear often. The idea of family is woven into the Cambodian language. Cambodians refer to each other as brother or sister, or to older Cambodians as aunt or uncle.
But when the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in 1975, they abolished all the traditional forms of address. No more sister, brother, aunt, uncle. Just one word: comrade.
The language change was part of a broader Khmer Rouge policy to weaken the family and ensure loyalty to Khmer Rouge above all else. Family relationships were frowned upon. In some cases, husbands were separated from wives, and children from parents.
Today, the Khmer Rouge are gone, and the traditional forms of address are back.
But this does not mean all is well for families in Cambodia.
How poverty breaks up Cambodian families
Decades later, poverty continues what the Khmer Rouge started. It presents families with difficult choices that often lead to them being pulled apart.
Cambodia is a very poor country. In 2013, the annual per capita income in Cambodia was just over US$1,000. One in five Cambodians are below the poverty line, living on less than US$1.25 per day, and they face hard choices when it comes to supporting their families.
In some cases, these choices lead to the doors of orphanages. The majority of children living in Cambodian orphanages are not orphans, but have been brought to the orphanage by families hoping to ease their financial burden or give their child the opportunity for a better education.
Though in the last decade, Cambodia has been stable and the economy has improved, the number of children in orphanages nearly doubled between 2005 and 2010. Of the 12,000 Cambodian children living in orphanages, over 70% are estimated to have at least one living parent.
Some orphanages exploit poverty by actively recruiting children from poor families. Overseas donors who fund orphanages and well-meaning tourists who visit orphanages provide financial incentives for this disturbing practice. This is one reason “voluntourism,” or volunteering while travelling, has been heavily criticized in recent years.
Similarly, poverty is one cause of human trafficking in Cambodia, whether for forced labour or sexual exploitation. Children from poor families are much more likely to be trafficked into forced labour. Many end up in Thailand or Vietnam, where they are forced to beg. Often, these children were sold to traffickers by their parents.
Other parents do what they can to keep their children in Cambodia, and leave the country themselves. An estimated 200,000 Cambodians work illegally in Thailand, drawn north by the hope of finding better jobs than are available at home.
Many of these workers leave behind children in Cambodia. Sometimes grandparents or older siblings are left in charge, and sometimes children are brought to orphanages or to other charities.
How fewer families will face these situations
Of course, not all Cambodians live in poverty. Many families live together without ever considering placing their children in an orphanage, or working illegally in Thailand.
In the past decade, the economy in Cambodia has steadily grown, and this is the best hope for families to be able to be together. As household incomes rise, fewer families will have to choose between being together or apart.
But while the economy is improving, and while Cambodians say sister or uncle rather than comrade, it is nonetheless disheartening how poverty continues what the Khmer Rouge started by making it hard for families in Cambodia to be together.