In rural areas nationwide, young female students encounter challenges, including limited access to quality schools, lengthy and unsafe commutes, financial constraints affecting further education and societal expectations constraining their choices. Despite these obstacles, their resilience and determination shine as they seek knowledge and a brighter future.

In a modest classroom at Plov Trey High School in Kandal province’s Thmor Kor commune, 14-year-old Dy Sreyneth diligently studies her textbooks. Her focused gaze and meticulous notes represent a noteworthy shift in Cambodia’s educational landscape: the increasing wave of female academic achievement.

Her accomplishments underscore the progress made through initiatives promoting gender equality and providing support for rural students. These efforts contribute to bridging the educational divide, empowering students like her to pursue their goals despite obstacles.

“I will continue my studies at Hun Sen Teuk Khleang High School, almost 10km from my home. I’ll commute on a motorbike with relatives,” Sreyneth says.

Khuon Vicheka, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, recently stated that the 2023 high school exams saw a total of 135,072 candidates, including 72,346 females. Of these, 98,460 students, or 72.89 per cent, successfully passed.

“Of the successful candidates, 56,492 were young women, constituting 78.09 per cent. Among the 1,673 A-level students, 947 were female,” Vicheka tells The Post.

The prevalence of female students outnumbering males is not unusual. Former Prime Minister Hun Sen, in his February meeting with Grade A students from the 2021-22 academic year, noted at the time that over 70 per cent of successful candidates were female.

However, he expressed concern regarding the diminishing performance of male students and called upon the ministry to look into this matter.

In the most recent high school exams, a sum of 125,739 candidates submitted applications, resulting in 90,950 students passing, equating to a pass rate of 72.37 per cent. Among the successful candidates, 52,512 were female, comprising 77.52 per cent of the total.

Triumph amidst odds

“We take pride in the growing success of female students; however, it raises concerns that out of 100 passers, 77 are women. We must fully analyse why young men appear less inclined to concentrate on their studies compared to their female counterparts, who diligently pursue education,” Hun Sen said.

Sreyneth, with her collection of 17 certificates of commendation, stands as a beacon of this transformation.

Her story embodies resilience and determination, reflecting the experiences of numerous young women in Cambodia overcoming traditional barriers to pursue their educational dreams.

“The challenges for girls are many, but we see education as our right and our future,” she shares.

This shift is not occurring in isolation; rather, it’s a response to years of collaborative efforts aimed at promoting gender equality in education policies and offering support to students in rural areas. These initiatives are yielding positive outcomes, empowering students like Sreyneth to pursue their ambitions despite substantial hurdles.

Vun Vuthy, 38, the mother of Sreyneth, expresses her joy. 

“I strive to work for my kids as long as they learn. Despite our financial challenges, we are committed to sending them to school to succeed,” she tells The Post.

Despite having only studied until Grade 7, and her husband until Grade 6, the couple stresses the importance of education. They work hard to ensure their children have the opportunity to study.

Vuthy mentions that due to limited resources, Sreyneth’s aunt takes photos and shares them on social media, hoping that generous individuals might support the girl’s education in high school and university.

According to a 2022 UNESCO report titled “Leave No Child Behind: Global Report on Boys’ Disengagement from Education”, strides have been made in advancing female students’ education in Cambodia.

The report highlights an increase in enrolment and success rates for female high school students, a vital step towards gender equality in education supported by government and NGO efforts.

Hurdles in rural education

However, challenges persist, especially for female students in areas facing socio-economic and cultural barriers. Poverty, traditional gender roles and safety concerns during commutes to school restrict their access to education and hinder academic and personal growth.

Although primary and secondary education for girls has improved, the UNESCO report notes that higher education remains less accessible, particularly for those from disadvantaged or rural backgrounds.

Gender stereotypes and biases in the curriculum also impact young girls’ self-perception and educational choices.

“Despite these challenges, the Cambodian government’s initiatives, coupled with NGO support, show promise in creating a more inclusive and supportive educational environment for girls,” the report said. 

Amid the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, female students in Cambodia, adapting to online learning, encountered additional obstacles in their educational journey.

Keo Som, the principal of Plov Trey High School, acknowledges the economic challenges faced by families. Despite this, children continue to pursue education, encouraged by annual scholarships provided by the education ministry.

With a total of 175 students, including 77 females in the 2022-23 academic year, the school serves as a central hub in Thmor Kor commune, accessible with new infrastructure to facilitate learning.

Neang Sothy, the principal of Hun Sen Teuk Khleang High School, points to a nearly balanced enrolment of 860 students, with 420 females for the 2023 school year. She mentions manageable travel distances for female students residing nearby.

“Students travel up to 7km, facilitated by well-maintained concrete roads. The school supports all students, with a notable majority of outstanding students being female, receiving incentives like funds and study materials,” Sothy tells The Post.

She highlights the importance of education for students, especially young women, saying that education empowers them to make informed decisions, secure employment, contribute to their families and maintain independence.

Defiant academic quest

Lek Karry’s story is another story of resilience and determination in rural Cambodia. At 14, she courageously rejected an arranged marriage set by her parents in her ethnic Prao community in Ratanakkiri province.

Opting for education, she confronted significant challenges to attend school, enduring lengthy commutes and grappling with financial hardships, often experiencing food shortages while residing in a school dormitory.

“In the dormitory, I had a place to stay, but my daily meals practically consisted of only salt and pepper. This limited diet made me feel unwell. When I was in Grade 8, I couldn’t afford food either. Every one or two weeks, I visited home. While my friends received 10,000 to 20,000 riel [$2.50 to $5] from their parents, and wealthier families provided their children with 500,000 or 100,000 riel, I didn’t even receive 1,000 or 2,000 riel,” she shares.

Despite obstacles, her dedication to learning remains unwavering. Through her involvement with the NGO Plan International Cambodia, she not only pursues her education but also empowers other girls in her community, actively engaging in projects promoting girls’ education and health.

Now 19 and in Grade 12, Karry envisions a future in university, considering journalism or international relations. She recognises that her journey impacts not only her life but also those in her community, showcasing the transformative role of education in challenging societal norms for young women in Cambodia.

In a country where traditional gender roles have long shaped societal norms, the success of students like Sreyneth and Karry signifies a transformative chapter –breaking barriers and rewriting norms, one textbook at a time.

As Sreyneth prepares for her next academic venture at Hun Sen Teuk Khleang High School, her journey symbolises hope and change. The girl, lauded with several certificates in Grade 7, now aspires to become a teacher.