“Lakana” (real name withheld) a sponsored child at a school in Mondulkiri – Care International. See more about this below.
One of the first schools I visited in Cambodia over 20 years ago was Sen Monorom Senior High School in Mondulkiri. Two things struck me straightaway. The first was the lack of girls compared to boys. The second was how few of the students were from the indigenous ethnic minorities who at that time made up 70% of the province’s population. Most of the students were from the main Khmer group, who were recent newcomers to the province.
Today, thankfully, there are many more girls and more indigenous students across all schools in Mondulkiri and the neighbouring provinces of Ratannakiri, Stung Treng and Kratie, where indigenous minorities are also found.
It is welcome good news and all credit to authorities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that have brought it about. However there are still too many children not going to school, attending spasmodically, having to repeat years and dropping out. Some have done so because of the economic downturn caused by the Covid19 pandemic. So there is more to be done and for ground to be recovered.
Mondulkiri is Cambodia’s largest province and least populated although that is changing because of development and exploitation of its vast natural resources. Back in 1998 there wasn’t one metaled road there. Almost everyone lived in remote hamlets connected only by rough tracks across mountainous terrain. The nearest schools and health centres were many walking-hours away. It was easy to see why so many children did not go to school, especially girls who of course also shared with their mothers the burden of family and domestic chores.
There was another barrier too. The largest minority group, the Bunong, spoke their own language, as did the other smaller groups, whereas all of Cambodia’s teachers were Khmer. Therefore efforts were made to bring about local languages to be used for initial years of primary education, so that children would be encouraged to learn and to be able to enjoy school, as they acquired Khmer which is essential for their later years.
A typical modest dormitory in Mondulkiri – this is the boys’ one.
At the same time innovative ways had to be explored for girls to attend school, especially junior and senior high schools, some distance far from their homes. One of the first initiatives was an Orphanage I visited, where the girls told me quite openly that they weren’t orphans. However the reputable church-based NGO allowed their facilities to be used as a dormitory and a safe place for the girls to stay when away from families. Over the years, more dormitories have been opened. In addition new schools have opened in rural areas and the roads improved.
Basic literacy and numeracy makes an enormous difference for all families and none more so than indigenous ones. It means for the first time a family member can read labels and instructions on important products such as chemicals and medications. He or she can help obtain personal documents like identity-cards and family books.
The more educated an indigenous child, the greater is his or her contribution to the family and community. It is still comparatively recent for some ethnic minorities to have interaction with the outside world and to have to engage with it. The concept of a cash economy is quite new. Indigenous people are shy by nature. Shyness and the language divide make for social barriers and gaps with mainly Khmer officials and traders. Today their educated children are bridging divides. In fact some of us take great pride in observing successive batches of young people in the past decade mastering Information Communication and Technology (ICT) skills. They have made the jump to English to be internet-savvy too.
“Rath” was one of the first indigenous girls to complete her education and make the full transition graduating from the Royal University of Agriculture in Phnom Penh where she was one of just a few girls. Today she holds a senior position in her home province. Many girls study finance and accounting where the opposite applies, it is rare to find boys, for example at Cambodia’s largest such college the Vanda Institute. Cambodia’s womenfolk are their family’s, their community’s and their nation’s book-keepers.
Two forms of assistance make it possible for indigenous students from remote provinces to study at higher education levels. It means living in or near Phnom Penh. The first is the availability of similar dormitory facilities to their provincial ones where they can stay and study safely. The second is direct sponsorship to help with academic fees and other costs.
Sponsorships can be a monthly sum or single payments for one term or the full school year. Basic cover consists of paying for fees, uniforms, travel, books and stationery. A bicycle is a big help when the home is beyond walking distance away. Contributions to the student’s and his or her family’s costs also help.
Jarai Ethnic Minority Girls sponsored by US NGO Cambodia Corps Inc to attend senior high school in Rattanakiri and to stay in its dormitory.
Now as well as formal education, the extra-curricular experience children gain, in particular girls, in and around school and university, is equally important. Friendships, social skills and peer-to-peer sharing develop. This is beginning to reverse the trend where traditionally only men take part in civic affairs.
In a country like Cambodia even today it is all too easy for young people to be exploited, to be exposed to the worst forms of such evils. It is far less likely with educated and confident children. Excellent local NGOs like Friends and Mlop Tapang provide safe refuge, support and vocational skills-training for children and youths who end up estranged from families and on urban streets or tourist-beaches.
Another welcome development in my time in Cambodia has been the re-establishment of the Girl Guides of Cambodia, hence the title of the article, which has proven to be an excellent outlet for successive generations of girls. Similar social groups can be found throughout Cambodia.
Adversities in life are less likely to happen to children brought up in a stable family and community and able to access school. While Cambodia’s economy is improving and poverty has been reduced, much more progress is needed. As we saw recently with the Covid pandemic gains of recent years can be suddenly set back. Many families and communities lack reserves and coping mechanisms to withstand shocks. A death or serious illness can impose severe hardship. When this happens it is often the girls who must make sacrifices by dropping out of school and going in search of employment such as in garment factories , domestic service, or the hospitality industry. All of these are notorious exploiters of vulnerable people, especially of uneducated girls who have no other options to make a living for themselves and their family.
So although 25 years has seen great progress for Cambodia’s girls, there is much more to do. I will single out Care International for its pioneering work to facilitate indigenous children in to school and to other local and international NGOs that arrange sponsorships. Indeed I would encourage readers to consider sponsoring girls with Plan International, Action Aid and World Vision that operate good schemes. I have no personal interest in promoting these NGOs, simply that I can personally attest to the consistent quality of their work that I have observed first-hand over many years.
Article by John Lowrie - John Lowrie is an overseas development and human rights advocate, retired but still active, based in UK and Cambodia.https://www.johnlowrie.uk/