Child protection

For every child, protection.

A boy in his home in Kak Village, Kak commune, Borkeo Disctrict, Ratanakiri
UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Todd Brown


No child should be exposed to violence, abuse or neglect. Yet in Cambodia the situation is dire for many. One in two children has experienced severe beating, one in four has suffered from emotional abuse, and one in 20 has been sexually assaulted. Many children are trafficked, forced to work, separated from their families and unnecessarily placed in residential care institutions.

Momentum is increasing for Cambodia to introduce laws to protect children, however there is no comprehensive, planned system in place. Developing a national vision on which to base a legal framework is the first step in realizing legal protection for children.

Children and adolescents remain at high risk of dropping out of school, teenage pregnancy, child marriage and violence. This is due partly to social attitudes that perpetrate violence, and partly to the limited number of services designed with children and adolescents in mind in key areas such as education, social work, health and justice.

Social work in Cambodia
UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Charles Fox

Violence against children

Violence cuts deep into children’s physical and mental health. In addition to the short-term impacts such as physical injury and emotional trauma, experiencing violence in childhood can lead to emotional and behavioural problems in adolescence and adulthood.

Children are exposed to violence and corporal punishment in their homes, schools and communities. Girls who are abused find it more difficult to marry, as they are considered ‘damaged goods’. Boys who are sexually assaulted may experience lasting stigma. In the majority of cases it is not strangers who harm girls and boys, but people they know, in their families or in the community.

Family separation

Most children in Cambodia live with their biological parents, but many–too many–live in residential care institutions. UNICEF studies have found that the overwhelming majority of children who live in residential care have at least one living parent, indicating that they should not be in an institution. Families often place children in residential care because they cannot afford to feed, clothe or educate them, unaware of the negative consequences of their decision.

Children outside of family care are exposed to high levels of violence and exploitation, including trafficking, sexual abuse, online sexual exploitation and forced begging. Decades of research show that living in residential care can harm a child’s social, physical, intellectual and emotional development. Not only does the brain not develop fully but parts of it actually die, and much of this is irreversible.

In Cambodia, 68 per cent of children in residential care institutions have been found to have at least one living parent.

Children in contact with the law

In 2017, an estimated 907 Cambodian children were in detention. Whether as suspects or victims of a crime, boys and girls do not have access to a child-friendly justice system. Children who experience criminal acts are extremely vulnerable, and a justice system that does not cater to their needs can do them additional harm.

Between 2010 and 2014, there was a 56 per cent decrease in the number of young people in Cambodian prisons, thanks to alternatives to detention and more child-friendly justice mechanisms. However, since 2015 this positive trend has reversed. Detaining a child should be a last resort and for the shortest possible time, but children suspected or accused of having committed an offence are often placed in detention, where they are exposed to the risk of physical and emotional abuse. Legal, social and cultural norms, as well as practical constraints, make justice for children a complex challenge.

More than half of all Cambodian children have experienced physical violence.


3 year old Sarika and her mother Ros Maspan play in front of their home
UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Todd Brown

UNICEF works to strengthen Cambodia’s child protection system so that children are protected from harm. We work closely with government ministries, the Cambodian National Police and other partners to realize a vision of change for Cambodia, where girls and boys, including adolescents, live free from violence, abuse and exploitation in their homes, schools and communities.

Specifically, we focus on building a child-friendly legal framework, supporting children and adolescents with appropriate crime-prevention and response measures, and fostering a culture of non-violence by transforming the social attitudes and beliefs that perpetuate violence itself.

Build a child-friendly protection system

In Cambodia, the absence of a child protection law makes it difficult to develop a coordinated and effective child protection response across the country. UNICEF is supporting the government to develop such a law, together with related policies and standards, such as including alternatives to residential care for children.

Reliable, significant data is critical to powerful action. Cambodia has a wealth of child protection data, but they are sporadic and ad hoc. To bridge this gap, we are working with the government to consolidate and launch a Child Protection Information Management System that will help generate data which can be tracked and which will allow for better interventions.

Weave a safety net for vulnerable children

Social workers are the backbone of a solid child protection system. While Cambodia has government staff who work in the social welfare sector, they are not classified as social workers. In 2012, there were only 917 social workers in the whole country, the majority of whom had no formal social work training.

We support the government to train social workers in the areas of health, education, justice and child protection, so that they can they handle cases related to violence, juvenile crime and institutional care in the most appropriate and effective manner.

Using a systematic approach, we support the training of a broader workforce of welfare, justice, health and social protection staff who are responsible for protecting children. We do this so they gain the knowledge and tools they need to identify vulnerable children and provide child-friendly services, including crime prevention and justice, for example alternatives to arrest and imprisonment.

Foster a culture of non-violence and family preservation

Communities play a critical role in keeping families together, protecting children from violence and ensuring that they thrive in a safe environment. Parents, teachers and caregivers who learn about positive parenting can promote non-violent behaviour, while well-respected religious leaders who understand the importance of keeping children out of residential care are more likely to support families to raise their children at home.

We work with our partners to train teachers and religious leaders so that they have the knowledge and awareness they need to protect children. We run campaigns to change people’s behaviour and their perceptions of discipline. Our campaigns champion positive discipline and challenge existing thinking that perpetuates unnecessary family separation.