Child hawkers increasingly vulnerable to abuse

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On a sidewalk in Ho Chi Minh City's Phu Nhuan District, a young mother hits her six-year-old daughter for failing to sell chewing gum to late-night drinkers at a nearby eatery.

The little girl cries and walks quickly to another eatery to offer the gum, even though it's well past midnight.

At 4 a.m. at a restaurant on District 1's Hai Trieu Street, another child, seven-year-old Hieu, begs for money near the entrance. The small child looks around furtively as several patrons cast irritated glances her way. She too has been sent out soliciting by her guardian and faces a possible beating if she returns empty-handed.

Experts say that a lack of coordination among agencies, insufficient personnel, and the indifference of some officials, have contributed to an increase in child abuse of children who are forced by their parents or relatives to work as beggars and hawkers.

Phan Thanh Minh, head of the child welfare department at HCMC's Department of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs, said that the growing exploitation of children by adults was a "painful reality" in the city.

She said city authorities have recently dealt with many cases found in districts 3, 8, Tan Binh and Tan Phu.

However, Minh said better solutions need to be found for dealing with such mistreatment of children, including improved coordination between social welfare agencies, the police, and local residents.

Only 17 of HCMC's 322 wards currently have personnel specializing in the area of child welfare.

Minh said that many parents who were caught forcing their children to beg, or who were found to be abusing them, were unaware that what they were doing was illegal. Many believed that parents had overarching rights over their children which also allowed them to send the children out to work on the streets, Minh said.

Another city official of the labor and social affairs department said, on condition of anonymity, that it was often hard to penalize parents or guardians - which usually consists of issuing them a fine - as local police must first file an official report on the case.

"There have been cases when the ward police have shirked their responsibility," the official said. "They don't want to cooperate with us to handle the problem."

A vicious cycle

Hieu's mother, Hong, said she often beats her child because the little girl always complains of being hungry. A Tuoi Tre reporter learned that the seven-year-old often stays up all night begging for money until the next day.

Her mother, meanwhile, waits at a nearby corner to collect the cash Hieu brings in. Hong admits she has sent her daughter to beg around the clock, usually near HCMC's Ben Thanh Market and the surrounding area.

Near Hong and Hieu's home on Dien Bien Phu Sreet in Binh Thanh District's Ward 15, dozens of neighborhood children between the ages of 5 and 8 also work as hawkers or beggars.

Five-year-old Cu Lun is one such child, who was observed by reporters selling chewing gum on several streets in Binh Thanh District. A woman with Lun waited around and collected money whenever the child managed to sell a pack.

Tuoi Tre reporters also visited the home of siblings Ngan, Quynh and Trong in District 2's An Khanh Ward. The children, aged 4-12, were found begging on the streets and said they were doing it for their parents.

Their father, Bac, said he and his wife used to be employed in construction but work had recently dried up. His wife now sold lottery tickets and the family was struggling to get by, he said.

Psychologist Nguyen Thi My Linh of HCMC says children who are sent to work on the streets are extremely vulnerable to sexual predators and face a host of other dangers.

Also, those who are physically abused are likely to grow up and repeat the cycle of violence with their own children, she added.

According to Vietnamese law, parents can be fined VND1-2 million (US$58-117) for forcing their children to work. The fines are five times higher for anyone caught running an organized ring where a group of children are sent to hawk items or beg.

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