Monks help protect children from violence

Monks across Cambodia are being trained to use their voice to spread educational messages about ending violence against children

Buthdy Sem & Lloyd Cristyn Elisabeth
© UNICEF Cambodia/2022/Buthdy Sem
UNICEF Cambodia/2022/Buthdy Sem
12 July 2022

Siem Reap, May 2022 – The Venerable Monk Tat Mohati first met 13-year-old Sothea* at a primary school in Siem Reap last November. He was there raising awareness in the community about how to prevent and respond to violence against children, and Sothea himself had been a victim of abuse at his home.

Having been trained in mediation, the monk went with Sothea’s teacher to meet his grandmother and father to try and understand what had led to the conflict and what could be done to make sure that it would never happen again. 

When asked why he had been violent towards his son, Rithy* responded that he had become angry after returning from an exhausting day working in the rice field to find that Sothea was not at home and the rice for his dinner had not been cooked. The monk then took Sothea aside separately and asked for his own version of events. He said that in the evenings he prefers to socialise with his friends in the village rather than do schoolwork or support his parents with the household chores.

The monk settled the conflict by allowing both father and son to speak openly about what had happened. He gave Rithy advice on how to control his anger and asked Sothea to try and help his father in the evenings with the cooking while his mother is out working. Sothea said that since the monk’s intervention, his father has stopped beating him.

Tat Mohati is one of around a hundred monks living inside the Inkosa Pagoda in Siem Reap, where many visitors come every day to receive blessings and to get advice on how to solve their family problems. He is also the focal point for child protection at the pagoda, and recently he’s been out in his local community using his voice to spark discussions about what continues to be a severe yet rarely talked about problem in Cambodia.

© UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Tat Mohati
UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Tat Mohati
A community engagement event led by monks

In 2021, he participated in online child protection trainings organised by the Ministry of Cults and Religion. The trainings form part of a five-year action plan to end violence against children and unnecessary family separation in Cambodia. The Strong Family campaign, the first country-wide child protection campaign of its kind in the country, was launched at the beginning of 2020 under Cambodia PROTECT, a national communication-for-development strategy led by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSVY) with UNICEF support. The initiative aims to prevent and respond to violence against children and to address both the social and cultural norms that legitimise violence against children and normalise the belief that residential care facilities are beneficial to a child.

Over half of children in Cambodia experience at least one form of violence before the age of 18. It happens at any stage of childhood, in any form, and often at the hands of trusted individuals with whom they interact daily. Placing children in residential care has also been shown to heighten the risk of violence, exploitation and neglect, and has lifelong implications for a child’s development and wellbeing. Three out of four children in residential care institutions have at least one living parent, and while families may place children in care homes because of poverty, a lack of access to education and lack of social welfare support, it is also driven by the belief that they provide a better quality of care and education than the children would receive otherwise.

Monks and other religious leaders play critical roles in spreading educational messages about ending violence against children. As respected and active members of their community, they are often looked to for moral guidance or in times of crisis and conflict. By empowering monks at a local level with the information and advice needed to raise awareness about issues impacting their community, they become powerful voices in promoting peaceful resolution to conflicts, speaking out against harmful cultural practices and protecting children.

Tat said the trainings have not only enhanced his own knowledge of the problem but helped him understand how best to communicate with community members and families about the potential underlying causes behind the violence as well as the long-term negative consequences it can have on a child’s health and well-being.


© UNICEF Cambodia/2022/Buthdy Sem
UNICEF Cambodia/2022/Buthdy Sem
A poster of the child protection policy at Inkosa pagoda in Siem Reap

He said used his Buddhism teachings, known as the Dharma, to guide his understanding of how to respond to and prevent violence, highlighting anger management as a key tool for prevention. “Anger is the seed of violence, pain, suffering and punishment,” he said. “It is unfortunate for anyone who experiences acts of violence.”

Tat has conducted awareness raising sessions to 100 monks at Inkosa pagoda and engaged 1,200 students and parents in schools and communities. He said that at first there was little understanding that violence can occur in many forms, including physical, emotional and sexual violence and abuse. “The community people were not able to provide correct answers on types of violence against children and the root causes of anger,” he said.

He added that he had also led sessions to students at the University of Indrawichea, where he teaches.

In 2021, despite the challenges brought by COVID-19, the monk focal points across Siem Reap, with the support of the Ministry of Cults and Religion, conducted 16 community engagement events, reaching more than 2,300 monks, children and parents. 

The Strong Family campaign is currently being rolled out across Cambodia, focussing first on the target provinces of Kandal, Preah Sihanouk, Battambang, Siem Reap, Ratanakiri and the municipality of Phnom Penh. Over 900 monks have received training.

“Community engagement is a core activity in the multi-layered and cross-sectoral strategy being implemented as a part of Cambodia PROTECT. It promotes the knowledge, attitudes and practices needed to be a supportive, non-violent parent, caregiver and community member,” said UNICEF’s Child Protection Officer Kanha Chan. “Launched with the support from UNICEF Australia, UNICEF Germany, the Government of Japan and USAID, the Cambodia PROTECT strategy and the Strong Family campaign mark an important step towards ending all forms of violence against children and changing the long-held attitudes and beliefs that put children at harm.”

Monks across Cambodia like Tat Mohati are hoping to ensure that everyone – from parents and caregivers to teachers and community members, and even children themselves – knows that the best place for a child to grow and develop is a safe family environment.

With the continued support of his teachers, Sothea is happy and hopeful for the future, and he says he is excited by the progress he’s been making at school. “I passed my exam to study at the lower secondary school,” he said. “I am good at biology, and I want to be a nurse.”

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved