A Change of Guard

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Sunday, 23 October 2011

Cambodia's 'Muhammad Ali' fights for street children

AFP and AsiaOne
Sunday, Oct 23, 2011

PHNOM PENH - It may look like an ordinary kickboxing class, but the students are among the Cambodian capital's poorest street children - and their instructor is a national superstar.

Laughter echoes through the small community centre on the outskirts of Phnom Penh as 20 children, aged three to 14, attempt to copy the powerful right kick that has helped legendary kickboxer Eh Phuthong rack up nearly 200 wins.

Now retired after almost two decades in the ring, Eh, himself no stranger to poverty, says he hopes passing on his fighting skills will give the youngsters in his down-trodden neighbourhood a better life.

"They are poor kids, some are orphans. I am showing them the art of fighting so they can defend themselves," the broad-shouldered 38-year-old told AFP after the training session.

"I also tell them to stay healthy, stay in school and stay away from drugs."

The man who could famously break an opponent's arm with just one kick has proved a big hit with the street kids at the day centre operated by Australian charity Child Wise.

"If you can imagine what it would have been like to have (famed former world heavyweight boxing champion) Muhammad Ali teach you how to box as a child, that is what it is like for these children learning from their very own national hero," said Barb Eason, who manages the group's community centre project.

The regular activity also gives the children "something to look forward to, improves their self-esteem and teaches them discipline and personal safety", she added.

Both Unicef and Child Wise estimate that there are between 10,000 and 20,000 children working on the city's streets, and around 1,000 of them live on the streets full-time.

"Factors as to why children are on the streets include poverty, domestic violence, rapid population growth, and rural-urban migration," added Eason, who also blamed "weaknesses in the education system".

Many of the children spend long hours on the streets scavenging or begging for money. And it is a life fraught with danger.

"They are highly vulnerable to various forms of abuse and exploitation, including sexual abuse and trafficking," said Souad Al-Hebshi, chief of child protection at Unicef Cambodia.

"In my experience, violence against street children occurs 100 percent of the time," added Eason.

She credits Eh with boosting the self-esteem of his pupils and says he is able to get through to these fiercely independent youngsters not just because of his star power, but because he has shared some of their experiences.

"He too was very poor when he was a child and did not have the opportunity to go to school," Eason said.

Rubbish scavenger Vong Nith, who looks younger than his 12 years, says spending time with his idol has given him more confidence.

"I used to be afraid of being beaten up by the children of rich people," he said, explaining that this kept him out of school.

But now that he is on friendly terms with a celebrity and knows how to defend himself, Vong says he's "not fearful anymore" of going to class.

"I have many friends at my school now," he said. "When I grow up I want to become a famous kickboxer like Eh Phuthong."

After a career that brought fame but not fortune, Eh today lives alongside his students in the resettlement village of Borei Santhapheap 2, all of them victims of the forced evictions that have become commonplace in Cambodia in recent years.

The impoverished village, inconveniently located some 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the city centre the residents used to call home, has only minimal infrastructure and lacks job opportunities.

Eh was already giving free kickboxing lessons to local boys and girls when Child Wise asked him and his wife Sang Somaly, who is also a kickboxer, to run a new community centre in the area.

Aside from the fighting lessons, the facility provides meals and learning materials and offers a safe environment for youngsters to hang out when they want to take a break from life on the street.

Eh and his wife, who have four children and often struggle to make ends meet themselves, are known to go beyond the call of duty and regularly open their home to children in immediate need of shelter until Child Wise can find a longer-term solution, Eason said.

Since he started working with them nearly a year ago, Eh says he has seen the hardened children transform.

"Now, they all go to school. And when they have problems or a conflict, they come to me and ask for advice. They are not hot-tempered kids anymore and they know how to respect their elders."

Keen to make the most of Eh's enduring appeal, Child Wise plans to take him to communities in other parts of the country to give talks about protecting children from abuse and exploitation, Eason said.

"Everyone he meets is eager to hear what he has to say," she said.

Eh says he will do what he can to give vulnerable children a fighting chance at a decent future. "I want to be a role model and help these kids because I am poor like them."

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