Srei On, getting a helping hand
FIVE-year-old Srei On smiled, clinging to her mother's
hand, and said she liked school. "I like to
study," said the girl, standing in front of her
family's one-room shack.
Although she lives in a Phnom Penh squatter camp
without electricity, water or sanitation, and her family
earns only 3000 riel a day selling grilled chicken and
cakes, Srei On is able to attend nursery school.
Her costs are paid by the Rasmei Sobbhana Women's
Foundation, an organization which helps poor girls like
her get an education. She says she has already learned to
count and write numbers.
Srei On, however, is one of the lucky ones. According
to the Cambodia Human Development Report (CHDR) 1998,
which focuses on women and development, women lag far
behind men in terms of education, health and wealth.
The report, compiled by the Planning Ministry and
funded by the United Nations Development Program, was
released Oct 19. It points out alarming gender
inequalities in many areas: for example, literacy rate
(79% for men, 55% for women), earnings (men earn about
50% more in most occupations), and political
representation (7 female MPs in the last 120-seat
"We have to make a great effort so that society
will understand [about gender inequality]," said Im
Run, Undersecretary of State for Women's Affairs.
Education, women's rights experts agree, is the key
first step in addressing gender inequality problems in
Cambodia. The CHDR notes that girls have a significantly
higher school dropout rate.
Although girls and boys have similar enrollment rates,
by age 15 there are twice as many boys in school, and by
age 18 there are three times as many - although the girls
who do stay in school outperform their male colleagues.
Girls don't stay in school for several reasons, but
foremost among them are a need to do household chores or
wage-earning, and "a parental perception that female
education is not as important as male education",
the CHDR concludes.
Indeed, Srei On's family illustrates many of the
problems noted in the report. On has a 17-year-old
sister, Ny Kosal, who had to drop out of school in 1995,
after completing only four years.
"I liked school," she said a trace
wistfully. "But the money we had to pay for the
school is very high."
The Sobbhana Foundation offered Kosal schooling money,
but she gave it to her small sister instead so she could
continue helping her mother sell cakes.
"I feel sorry, but we have no money for
school," said Kuon Seng, On and Kosal's mother. She
is a widow and says that with Kosal's help the family
doubles its daily income.
However, the girls also have a 14-year-old brother. He
sells sweets in the evening, but attends school in the
Asked why she sent her daughter to school but not her
son, Kosal said: "If my daughter went to school,
there would be no one to help me."
Yet the CHDR notes consistent positives associated
with educated women: they are more likely to send both
their own girls as well as their boys to school; they
earn up to 80% more; they are significantly less likely
to be abused by their husbands. "The low rates of
enrollment of women in Cambodia not only deprive women of
the right to expand their capabilities, they also deprive
society of the valuable economic contributions they could
have made," the report notes.
Addressing such issues is one of the prime goals of
the Ministry of Women's Affairs; unfortunately, the
Ministry is hampered by lack of funds.
Im Run said the CHDR's depressing statistics were
expected, given the deep gender biases she said are
prevalent in Khmer culture.
"We have to eliminate the concept that women
should not be involved in this or that," she said.
"When society understands about this we should be
able to do something so that women understand this, so
that parents understand that education of their daughters
in particular is important."
However, Ministry initiatives such as a planned
National Women's Center and rural credit programs are
constrained by its limited budget - only 0.12% of the
national budget. By comparison, defense and security
account for about 43%.
Im Run said the Ministry may run a laundry service to
help maintain the Women's Center.
The budget is "unfair", she said, but
reflects Khmer values. "Even among Khmer women, we
still don't appreciate ourselves," she said. "I
have heard a woman say that if she were elected, she
would tear down the Ministry ... so if women don't
appreciate women, how about the men?"
Im Run said the Ministry relies mostly on UN
organizations and NGOs to help it run programs to raise
awareness of gender inequality and improve women's lives.
The gap is also filled by private organizations such
as the Rasmei Sobbhana Women's Foundation, which is
helping 30 poor girls like Srei On attend school.
Three of its proteges have even enrolled in the School
of Fine Arts to study dance, something they never could
have afforded before.
Founded in 1983 in Site 2 Refugee Camp by Princess
Marie Ranariddh, the foundation started the schoolgirl
support project last year.
The foundation pays directly for school materials and
tuition fees, thus making sure the money is not misused.
The project is helping twice as many girls as in its
first year; funding comes solely from private donations.
The five staff members are concentrating on helping
girls whose families are living in squatter areas. They
also advise their families how important education is, to
give the girls options.
Although Srei On's sister Kosal gave up her chance to
go to school in favor of her sister, she betrays regret
when asked what she would have liked her life to be like.
"I wanted to work, not sell things," she