Laura E I Robson
Cambodia’s education system wears a grinning mask, and the disguise is apparently fooling most of the international community.
Some see great strides being made across the country to enable free and compulsory education for all primary-aged children. But from funding to forgery, public schools in Cambodia face the same difficulties today that have persisted for the last three decades, and Cambodia’s streets remain filled with children who should be in a classroom. Somewhere down the line, the idea of progress has been put forth, but is there any real evidence to back it up?
Aside from empty government promises to fulfill its constitutional obligations, which state that educating the country’s unusually high number of young people (of Cambodia’s 14.4 million people, half are under the age of 22), the basic master plan to combat illiteracy is one set forth by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 2000 under the name of Education for All, which consists of six internationally agreed-upon goals aimed at meeting the learning needs of children, youth and adults by 2015. In the process, accomplishing EFA will hopefully bring about the progressive elimination of child labour, or so the theory goes.
Despite broad acknowledgement that one of the most effective and foolproof ways to prevent school-age children from entering the work force is to improve access to education, it appears that the money to be made on the streets is an all too seductive option, and manipulation of young minds far too easy to make it a simple question of providing pencils.
Pressure from family members who fear financial problems and depend upon their children for income persists as one of the root causes of child labour, a pressure that springs eternal from the derivations of poverty and hunger.
As the director of the Centre for population studies at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Poch Bunnak, concludes in his 2007 research report on child labour in brick factories: “Family economic hardships stand out to be the leading reason for the child to work, at the expense of their education.”
Poverty is the overriding reason for the hole in the education system that, like a vacuum, sucks into it the children from the poorest and most needy families. Yet sadly, poverty constitutes only one of the factors that contribute to the large proportion of Cambodian youth being marginalised through lack of education.
Other factors include corruption and limited funding, which exacerbate problems of delivery and quality in the educational system. These become much harder to ignore as one travels to the provinces, where the scale of the government’s incompetence in education is startlingly apparent.
The dearth of properly trained, qualified teachers, the insufficient funding put aside for decent facilities and the inadequate punishment and reporting on bribery are the reasons for Cambodia lagging.
In spite of dramatic developments in the education sector in recent years, just 1.6 percent of Cambodia’s GDP is spent on education, according to UNESCO – ranking Cambodia at about 170th in the world. Most Western countries spend about 5.5 percent to 6.4 percent of GDP on education.
The shortage means that the disparity between urban and rural schooling is crippling for those in the countryside. Children there who are lucky enough to have the time and money to attend are only in class for a few hours at most, before heading out to work on the family farm or plantation.
Poor funding also means the meagre wages teachers receive usually force them to demand fees from their pupils to contribute to their salary, which can be as low as US$50 per month but at times dips to $40, or split their time between two or three jobs.
The Cambodian Independent Teachers Association strives to unify and empower teachers across the country in the hope of bettering their conditions and increasing their salary. Teachers say they are intimidated by government officials and “pressured into accepting bribes”, often not joining CITA for fear of being sacked and subsequently blacklisted.
In January 2009, Sun Thun, a Treal Secondary School teacher in Kampong Thom province and CITA member was forcibly transferred from his position after he spoke out about alleged corrupt practices undertaken by his fellow teachers.
As the director of CITA, Rong Chhung said in July, “Teachers are powerless. They lack legal foundations. They don’t know how to approach the situation. Their wages are low, and therefore they fear termination and punishments like not being able to invigilate exams or bans on assignments. Also, they may lose their benefits.”
Rong Chhung insisted that CITA was very concerned about child workers and their future. He made clear that the children working on dump sites, selling flowers or pulling carts were a priority.
“I recently spoke to a group of children who were selling bird eggs,” he said. “They had a manager who sent out children from the age of 7 to 10 at 10 or 11pm in the evening. They got 50,000 riel per month, but the money didn’t go to them, it went to their parents. I consider this abuse a form of trafficking.”
His prognosis for the success of the EFA goals was hardly promising.
“It is 2010 and there is only 5 years left. It isn’t enough. It won’t be successful as a development strategy. The ministries report that 95 percent of children go to primary school but only 31.9 percent pass. That means 67 percent or 68 percent don’t make it,” he said.
The dearth of properly trained, qualified teachers, the insufficient funding put aside for building decent facilities and the inadequate punishment and reporting on bribery are the reasons for Cambodia lagging well behind other Southeast Asian nations in the pursuit of EFA goals. Hopes of youngsters strolling to school instead of in between cars at the traffic lights seem to be receding even farther into the distance.
Granted, there have been achievements along the way. The general trend, according to United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), is up.
However, the literacy figures posted on its website defy belief and are, as it turns out in an interview this month, admittedly handed down from the government.
Moreover, however much the private sector appears to have progressed since it kicked off in 1997, its success not only establishes an undeniable elitism but also creates the illusion of development when in fact the public schools are not yet large enough or adequately equipped to fulfill the government’s pledge of a free and compulsory education for its younger generations.
What needs to be addressed within the last five years of the EFA plan is how the families that up to now have relied upon their children’s income to survive can be persuaded to invest in their children’s education. How can they be persuaded to acknowledge that the results of such investments are far more beneficial in the long run than those associated with child labour?
Unless the youth of Cambodia and their parents are taught to be aware of their universally recognised human right to an education and begin to demand that it materialise, the government will happily continue to squander its time and money until 2015, when it will no doubt think up some excuse as to why the whole idea was unfeasable anyway.
Education is key to any country’s economic and social development, and for one with such a unique demographic as Cambodia, it becomes even more crucial to ensure that the future generations have the chance to reach their full potential.
Laura E I Robson is a consultant with the Community Legal Education Centre in Phnom Penh.