Sunday, February 19, 2012

Child labor along the Mekong

Since a week I and my husband are on a cruise on the Mekong River, having started in Siem Reap, Cambodia where we visited the amazing Angkor Wat temples. On this cruise we have the chance to see rural villages in Cambodia and Vietnam, all villages which just started to establish relations with this cruise line, owned in part by a man from Switzerland. The basic set-up is that passengers can walk through the villages and in return these villages get financial support from the cruise line. During the visits there is always a local guide to accompany us – first from Cambodia and now from Vietnam.
Just today we visited Binh Thanh Island near the Vietnamese town Sadec. In this village, we could see how rice mats were made by local women. Some of these women looked very young. Our guide told us that some of them worked there already for a long time. She especially pointed out a girl which according to her was already thus employed for six years.

When I pointed out that this was a child labor issue, our guide failed to acknowledge my objection to this practice. She indicated that the girl still went to school every day for four hours. What she failed to comprehend, however, was that such a work setup would impact her school performance as she would be tired in class, not have enough time to do her homework – and, not have enough time to play with other children. As this type of work is only done by women, it also impacts the equality of opportunity between men and women, or rather, boys and girls. These girls will benefit from less education than their male counterparts, which will impact their future work opportunities and scope of personal development. Moreover, this imbalance will make these girls in the future more dependent on their families and husbands.
My objection to this work setup really astonished my tour guide – even though she was a woman herself. As I returned to the ship I reported the incident to the manager of the ship who was not aware of this situation. The cruise line how has the opportunity to induce change.

The fact of the matter is that most such villages are very unexposed to the outside world and nobody really knows what is going on there. Due to the fact that these villages profit directly from the tourist tours from this cruise line, however, there is now an opportunity to give a voice to these young girls by negotiating with the leaders of the villages to refrain from child labor. Moreover, the cruise line has the opportunity to train the local guides so that they are aware and sensitive to these kinds of issues. Actions by the cruise line such as this one would help offering these girls the same starting conditions in life as the boys have in these villages.

Sybille Sachs

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