One of the most difficult things, if not the most difficult thing, we've seen while traveling is children begging on the side of the road or hawking souvenirs at tourist sites, which is very common in Asia (outside China and Japan). Each time we are approached by a child it is a painful experience. Painful because the kid is cute and probably does need help, but we have a strict rule that we will only offer them is a smile and a polite "no thank you."
Although most of our blog posts follow a general chronological order of our travel, this post has observations from several places we have been.
Gangs and Incentives
Child begging and homelessness has a wide variety of causes and consequences, and we aren't experts. We have learned though that in some places, particularly in India, child beggars are forced by a local gang to beg and then to give them the money they collect. To give to a begging child in this situation would only be creating incentive for the gangs to continue the system. This is especially heart-wrenching because I'm sure there are also many child beggars who are truly hungry and in need of assistance that we are able to provide, but because of the gangs we never give.
Even if a begging child isn't under the thumb of a gang, giving to them creates an economic incentive for them to beg. Making begging profitable gives parents a powerful reason to keep their children out of school. For instance, on a recent bus trip from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, we were swarmed by kids asking for money at a tourist bus stop. The same is true of children selling items. We never buy from them as it creates an incentive for keeping them out of school. The areas where we have seen the most children begging and selling are the poorest areas we've visited on this trip, but even those areas had public schools.
To be clear, though, we aren't experts on this topic. This is course action we've chosen based on the information we've read and we'd advocate it for other travelers, but we understand it may not be a perfect read of the situation in all instances.
Tourists at Angkor
The place we've seen the most child hawking and begging this trip is Cambodia. Touring the sites of the ancient city of Angkor we saw swarms of children selling postcards and trinkets. We continued with our normal "no thank you" and a smile, but we were shocked by the behavior of some of the other tourists we saw.
Angkor gets many tourists from all over the world, but we an especially large number of Chinese visitors. And it seemed that every other middle aged Chinese woman had a purse full of sweets to give out to the children who were at the ruins to sell souvenirs. They would pull a bag out of their purse, open it up for the children to gather and take their pick, and put their arms around them to pose for a picture. They were taking photos like you would take a photo of yourself in front of a famous building or with an animal at the zoo.
Kelsi and I were slack jawed. We had never actually seen anyone interact with the kids like that. (Of course, the kids were there at the sites begging and selling, so they must have met some success.) After grasping what I was seeing on the first of these instances, I went over to the husband wielding the camera and tried to talk to see if he spoke any English. We talked past each other in two languages and I kind of pantomimed at him, but we could not communicate well enough for me to explain what a horrible thing I thought he was doing. In the end, Kelsi and I only walked away, shaking out heads.
Our Selfmade Guide to Ethical Photography
We should acknowledge, though, what's obvious to any reader of our blog - we do photograph children. The picture above was taken to illustrate the phenomenon and we did not pay for it. When we do take pictures of kids, it tends to be in one of a few situations. These don't come from any photo ethics guide, but own ethical instincts. We welcome feedback on our informal self-guidelines.
The first situation is children in their home or community environment in a context where getting to wave at or interact with us is purely for fun and they like posing for photos. The boys on the bikes above is an example of this. These photos are about highlighting kids in the context of their own lives/homes and is not, we believe, like taking photos of children who are staked out at tourist sites waiting to smile for tourists for a tip. In most situations, we avoid putting ourselves in the pictures with them, so that it is not about "hey look at me with these cute kids", which feels like commodifying and exotifying them.
The second situation is children with their parents with whom we've interacted and where we can ask the parents for permission before taking a photo, as in the photo from Xi'an, China below. The last situation is incognito photos from far away, catching people and children "as they are" and as unobtrusively as possible, such as many of the excellent photos Kelsi took in Alleppy, India.
A Guide for a Cave
It hasn't always been as easy or as clear cut as it was at Angkor.
A few weeks later Kelsi and I were touring near the small town of Kep in southern Cambodia. We hired a tuk tuk for the day to ferry us from one site to the next.
One of the sites we were to visit was a cave. We read that children armed with flashlights await tourists at the cave and offer to be their guide. Keeping with our strict rule of never hiring children, we made sure to bring our flashlight with us.
Once we were on the road, however, things weren't quite as simple. As we turned down the long road toward the cave, we found children on bicycles appear out of nowhere and start to bike along the road with us. A few of them came close enough for a chat. Kelsi was able to capture the video below of our approach to the cave.
In case you couldn't make out the conversation because of the background noise, the girl asks Kelsi if we are going to the cave and, when Kelsi answers in the affirmative, both she and another boy offer to be our tour guide.
There was one complication of the whole situation - caves can be dangerous. We didn't know much about the cave we were going to other than it was supposed to be a site to visit if you were in the area. Some caves you can waltz into with little effort and the path is obvious. Others offer branching paths in damp, slipper conditions where getting lost is a real possibility. We weren't sure which type of situation we were getting into.
And so when we arrived and had six or eight children standing around our tuk tuk waving their flashlights at us, we hesitated. Should we risk going into a cave we didn't know anything about alone? We asked the tuk tuk driver if he could come in with us but he wanted to wait outside. Instead, he gestured to the oldest child and told us to take him. Kelsi was admittedly quite nervous to go into the cave alone. If we were going to take a guide, she was going to try to make sure we did it as responsibly as possible. She threw a slew of questions at him:
"Do you go to school?"
"Why aren't you in school now?"
"I go during afternoon school, later."
"What is the name of your teacher?"
"Where is your school?"
He pointed confidently down the road.
All in all, it was really tough to say whether he went to school or not. We didn't know if he was there by someone else's urging or, as our guest house host told us when we asked about the local context of child guides, was there just to make a little pocket money and practice his English. Nervous about entering the cave alone, we decided to hire him.
It turns out it was completely unnecessary. The cave was wide open with an opening to the sky not far in. We could have navigated the whole of it ourselves. He was enthusiastic about guiding and did make sure that the light was in the right spot so never tripped on rock we might not have seen, but we could have managed alone. At the end we gave him $2 and thanked him and said something about hoping he had a good time in school before clambering back into our tuk tuk for the next sight. We felt guilty about our choice but weren't sure what else to do. This was the only time we hired children on the trip.
A Guide to Better Protecting Children as a Traveler
While in Cambodia we came across this fantastic guide to protecting children as a traveler by a group called the ChildSafe Network. This quick guide we've posted below gives you some guidelines for interacting with children as you travel. This organization is very active in Cambodia, but most of the tips are generally applicable. We particularly like tip #4 about avoiding situation in which the child is the tourist attraction, such as orphanage visits. We found the tips handy and hope you do, too, in your future travels.
If you can't quite read the guide in the picture, you can read more on their website.