At the age of 14 and with no more than a sixth grade education, Lek Karry’s parents arranged for her to marry a 15-year-old boy from her village whose parents came up with the match.
Karry is a member of the indigenous Prao people living in Taveng Krom commune’s Ki Kuong village of Ratanakkiri province’s Taveng district. Thinking about her future and knowing she was too young to marry, she bravely opposed the marriage plan.
The only daughter and the eldest of three siblings, today Karry is 19-years-old.
“Marriage at a young age has been a tradition for generations here. My grandparents did so and my mother married at the aged of 14 to my father who was 19 at that time,” she said. “For us, we do not know about studying because we live in the forest and mountains and only have rice fields and farming.”
Karry sees problems within her own family that she finds troubling. She said her mother does not have the right to possess any money and that her father controls all of it.
She says that sometimes her mother and father argue but it isn’t very helpful. Now in grade 12, she’s come to the conclusion that because her parents didn’t get enough education they never learned to reason out their differences productively through talking.
These factors motivated the young indigenous girl to refuse marriage and become determined to overcome the difficulties of continuing her studies and to graduate from university.
“Once we have knowledge, no one can stop us. I want to share publicly and encourage girls to have the courage to change themselves positively, to live full of energy and meet their full potential so that our community and society values girls like boys,” Karry told The Post.
Thirst for knowledge
“When I was in grade 5 or 6, I used to walk 3 km to school and then I asked my friend for a ride on their motorbike sometimes when I was in grade 7. I stayed in the school’s dormitory and visited home every one or two weeks.
“At the dormitory, I had a place to stay but I practically ate only salt and pepper ever day. That was why I felt sick. When I was in grade 8,I didn’t have money for food either. Every one or two weeks, I visited home. For my friends, their parents gave them 10,000 or 20,000 riel and some better off families gave their kids 500,000 or 100,000 riel, but for me not even 1,000 or 2,000 riel,” she said.
During her visits home, Karry picked up some vegetables to bring back with her, but the vegetables could only be stored for one or two days. So for the two days after visiting home, Karry could have some kind of meal, but the remaining 10 or more days she had little to eat unless classmates took pity on her.
She recalled that she struggled to learn in that situation for two years. This last year, she decided to ride her bicycle from home to school four times a day because she has to study in two shifts.
Karry said repeatedly that “it was so scary” to go cycling through the quiet jungle sometimes when she got done with school late for various reasons, but the fear, exhaustion and hunger could not stop her or make her drop out of school because education for her is the only hope for a better life and her only goal.
Karry studied grade 10 and 11 in Taveng district and worked when she could occasionally. Now in grade 12, she goes to study in Ratanakkiri province, where she also does volunteer work.
“I became a child member of Plan International Cambodia. Seeing that I am an active and brave member, I was given the opportunity to get training and attend seminars in Phnom Penh and now I’m able to volunteer with other seniors,” she said.
The organization implements girl-led project that empowers girls with self-confidence and courage to change themselves and their society.
The organization also implemented a peer-to-peer education project for the 10 villages in Taveng Krom commune with classes on sexual and reproductive health promotion for young people between 12 and 24 years of age run by volunteers like Karry.
The team also helped a 14-year-old girl with three siblings as her father didn’t care about the family. She wanted to drop out of school because of the heavy burdens she faced, but they raised money to buy her a bicycle and school supplies.
Karry said that she sees girls in the community still dropping out of school, especially those in primary school and still getting married at a very young age.
“Their parents work far away in the fields and they are not willing to leave their daughters at home and go to school alone, so they take them to the fields with them and other parents just do not encourage their children to go to school,” she said.
But she also sees more development in the area, such as wells being dug, more toilets and the villages being cleaner.
Karry intends to study at university, but she is reluctant to choose a major yet. She said she may choose journalism or international relations.
“If I don’t get a scholarship or work hard to pay for my education, my family cannot help me. Actually, what I am trying to do every day is also for their future too. My brother is still studying. I’m still studying and my job is still uncertain. I see them working in the fields, very tired, I also feel sorry for them, but do not know what to do to help them immediately,” she said.
She said that some people in the community are proud of the progress she has made, but others seem to hate it and try to oppose her by telling her parents that their daughter travelling around a lot could be robbed, assaulted or seduced.
Ta Veng Krom commune chief Men Bunthoeun said his commune has 10 villages with 95 families, of which 80 per cent are Prao indigenous people.
“Currently only a few families still adhere to the tradition of marriage at a young age. As for education, both boys and girls have a chance at learning. Some children just went to study in Phnom Penh for this new school year,” he said.
However, he acknowledged that Ta Veng Krom commune still lacks enough schools and some schools have to divide one classroom into two classes and three villages are still lacking any kind of primary schools.
“I want a partner organization to work with the government to address the problem of building more schools. Currently, in some primary schools, poor children who are quite young have to walk a few kilometers to school each day,” he told The Post.
After graduation from university, Karry expects to continue her work in the town, but she knows that her community needs to change.
“In my generation, everybody just gets married and has lots of children, including the younger generation, they are no difference. But at least now there are some girls who have finished primary school and are not yet sure about marriage until they finish high school or university, and that’s a positive sign,” she said.