Last week an Alongsider group leader calmly described how one of the little brothers, with help from his Alongsider, had avoided being molested by a man in his community. Other group leaders listening to the story nodded and said they have heard of similar incidents in their groups.
Alongsiders become mentors for the most vulnerable children in their communities. Children of economically poor families are vulnerable to malnutrition, social marginalization, child labor, and the loss of an education.
They can lack power to defend themselves and knowledge of the ways of the world; and they are often on their own while their parents are working. As a result, they are vulnerable to abuse: domestic and gang violence, molestation, rape and human trafficking.
Cambodian society has very rough edges where the powerless are concerned. The legacy of trauma is well-known.
Some say orphanages and shelters are needed for this very reason, even if the children housed inside aren't really orphans (80% aren't). But consider that hundreds of thousands of children in Cambodia are highly vulnerable. Orphanages could only care for a handful of them. On top of that, studies show children placed in orphanages are even more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation due to the isolation of children behind closed doors. Problem not solved.
Alongsiders doesn't remove children from their families. We believe that's a good thing. Yet we do make a difference in protecting and strengthening children.
- Before joining, Alongsider mentors study and sign a Child Protection Policy which outlines their commitment to a variety of protective measures for both the mentor and their little brother/sister.
- As part of their initial training, Alongsider mentors are taught how to spot abuse and exploitation of children and how to respond in appropriate ways, including reporting criminal activities and suspicions to authorities.
- An early comic book lesson in our curriculum addresses sexual abuse and the legal consequences for an abuser. Alongsider mentors are taught to discuss the story with their little brother/sister and report to us if any abuse is disclosed.
- As part of that Lesson, little brothers and sisters identify 5 trusted adults (counted on the fingers of one hand) that they can turn to in case of future abuse.
- Alongsider mentors and their little brothers and sisters learn the phone number for the Child Helpline - a crisis telephone line for support in case of danger or abuse.
- In the second year of the curriculum, we use our comic book lessons to address the issues of respecting girls and women and the problem of pornography.
- Alongsiders frequently speak up or even intervene when their little brothers or sisters are mistreated or neglected. By their actions and attitudes they are raising the standards of society around them.
- Alongsiders International has a dedicated Child Protection Officer, who ensures that all our partners and their staff have a solid Child Protection Policy and good training and systems in place to protect children.
- Perhaps most importantly, the little brothers and sisters have someone older who they can trust and talk to about their problems and fears. Someone is checking on them every week. They are no longer so alone or isolated. This simple fact makes them less vulnerable.
In the story mentioned at the top of this post, the little brother went to his Alongsider and told him that a man had invited him inside his house. The Alongsider knew about this man and his reputation. He warned his little brother to avoid him and even walk home by a different route in order not to pass in front of his house.
Sadly, there was little that the local authorities could have done to stop this man from preying on vulnerable children short of catching him in the act. But having an Alongsider made a difference for the little brother and his friends.
Alongsiders Cambodia has hundreds of little brothers and sisters living in diverse communities around the country, and it's growing as quickly as the staff sign up and train new groups. Even so the total cost of running Alongsiders Cambodia, including sending kids to camp each year, is less than the annual cost of running an average orphanage for a few dozen kids.
Alongsiders Cambodia isn't dramatically rescuing victims of abuse, exploitation, or human trafficking. We're grateful for organizations that do those things well.
What we're happy to say is that hundreds of Alongsiders are out in local communities protecting vulnerable children from experiencing these tragedies in the first place.