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Opinion: Tackling the literacy crisis

A concerted effort is needed to address the alarmingly low level of functional literacy in Cambodia, particularly among disadvantaged sections of the population.


LITERACY is an essential key to achieving Cambodia’s development goals. It’s difficult to imagine working effectively towards a basic education for all, the eradication of poverty, and peaceful and sustainable development without Cambodians having this vital tool to receive and impart information.

International Literacy Day, celebrated on September 8 each year, provides a good opportunity to assess progress towards the provision of literacy opportunities for all and the challenges that lie ahead.

This year, the global theme is Literacy for Peace and, in Cambodia, the government has decided to highlight the importance of literacy in addressing a specific development issue: combating drug abuse.
Improving literacy in Cambodia is essential, because literacy equips citizens with the skills and confidence to seek out essential information and make informed choices that have a direct impact on their families and communities.

Additionally, literacy programs strengthen mutual understanding by enabling people to share ideas and to express, preserve and develop their cultural iden-tity and diversity.

This human development has an impact on the social, political, environmental, cultural and economic development of a country. 

It is for these reasons that the Cambodian government has chosen to link literacy with drug abuse.

Increasing understanding of the dangers of drugs through education and literacy is critical to preventing drug abuse as well as sustaining drug treatment and service delivery, especially through community-based voluntary access to treatment options, as illustrated by the National Community Based Treatment Program, a unique initiative led by the Royal Government of Cambodia.

The benefits of a fully literate society are obvious, but the challenges remain. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 793 million adults around the world — the majority of them women _ lack min- imum literacy skills.

A further 67 million child-ren of primary-school age are not in school, and 72 million adolescents of lower secondary school age are also missing out on their right to an education, running the risk of creating a new generation of illiterates.

In Cambodia, the 2008 national census put the adult (15 years old and over) literacy rate at 77.6 per cent.

The rate of functional literacy (a person who can read, write and calculate for his or her own, or their comm-unity’s, development) is even more worrrying (37.1 per cent when it was last measured in 1999, compared with 67.3 per cent in the 1998 national census).

Cambodia’s literacy chall-enge also lies in reducing the disparities in literacy rates by gender (85.1 per cent among males, 70.9 per cent among females) and age group; between urban and rural populations (90.4 per cent and 74 per cent respectively); and among ethnic minorities and those members of the population who are most marginalised.

In Ratanakiri province, home to a large number of indigenous people who do not speak Khmer, the adult literacy rate is just 45.9 per cent.

What is even more worrying is that the improvement in literacy rates in Cambodia has been slowing.

Part of the reason lies in the fact that most illiterate people belong to hard-to-reach groups such as remote-area populations, ethnic minorities, migrants or people with disabilities.

These numbers should serve as an urgent call for the Cambodian government and its development partners to work harder together to improve levels of literacy in this country.

So what are we doing to change all this?
The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports recently approved a three-year national capacity development action plan for non-formal education and literacy under the Capacity Development for Education for All (CapEFA) program, which is supported by UNESCO.

The CapEFA action plan includes activities to accelerate literacy improvement in Cambodia by identifying clear priorities and strategies aimed specifically at reaching marginalised groups.

This program will map and analyse the illiterate populat-ion in terms of their geographical location, characteristics, needs and constraints, and match their literacy needs with the capacity of existing delivery mechanisms for literacy programs such as community learning centres.

The analysis will be used for evidence-based planning for effective literacy improvement and the mobilisation of partnerships and support.

Good practices of comm-unity learning centres to develop non-formal educat-ion and literacy activities will be collected and disseminated under the action plan.

This new attempt to identify and address the literacy needs of marginalised groups in Cambodia will set an example for other developing countries as we approach the 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals and Education for All targets.

The UN in Cambodia, in collaboration with the government and development partners, is working towards achieving these goals.

Anne Lemaistre is the UNESCO representative in Cambodia and acting UN resident co-ordinator. Olivier Lermet is the UNDOC country manager.



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