Plan International Cambodia (PIC) hosted a national girls’ leadership dialogue which focused on promoting girls’ leadership and gender equality to address early school dropout and child forced marriages. The May 31 event was held in Phnom Penh and attended by approximately 50 youth and policymakers.

Also in attendance were representatives of three ministries – Women’s Affairs, Education, Youth and Sport, and Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation – along with members of several local and international youth development partners.

Pov Sreyno, Global Campaign for Education ambassador, said that despite the hard work put in by mostly girls to tackle these issues, they remain a challenge.

“The national forum provided children and youth with an opportunity to raise challenges and suggestions and discuss and seek solutions from the relevant ministries to find effective solutions for the issues faced by children and youth,” she added.

She hoped the dialogue would encourage state institutions to work together to prioritise strengthening policies that would resolve these pressing issues and promote gender equality.

Yi Kim Than, deputy country director for PIC, noted that leaving education early and child marriages remain a problem, particularly in rural areas.

He added that girls and adolescents are susceptible to both of these issues, putting them at risk for future health problems such as physical health complications, early pregnancy, gender-based domestic violence and a weakened household economy.

“Involving teenagers in national policymaking can create a better environment for young people to discuss issues in their communities. The voices of youth can help policymakers understand these issues and create action plans that address specific concerns and mitigate negative impacts,” he explained.

“This forum offers a platform for young men and women to speak up about the obstacles they face in their communities while also proposing that all stakeholders take action to improve girls’ leadership, promote gender equality, and combat dropout rates and early marriage in Cambodia,” he said.

According to interviews conducted by PIC with key stakeholders and young people between the ages of 10 and 24, several factors contribute to youth dropouts.

It said poverty, vulnerability and depression resulting from being labelled as weak students, along with parental misunderstandings about the value of children’s education, the allure of employment, security concerns and geographic aspects all contribute to the issue.

According to the UN Population Fund’s (UNFPA) 2020 analysis of youth status, 29 per cent of Cambodian youth aged 10 to 24 drop out of school, with 38 per cent of those belonging to families with ID Poor cards. Additionally, the study found that 19 per cent of young women get married before turning 18, while six per cent of young men and 1.8 per cent of girls marry before the age of 15.

Women’s ministry secretary of state Hou Samith highlighted that improving children’s rights and safeguarding their protection, with a special focus on preventing early marriage and supporting their development into adulthood, is a government priority.

She said this is reflected by its policies, national action plans and legislation that ensures a better learning environment in schools, decreases the risk of school dropouts, and prevents children from becoming victims of early forced marriages.

“We are implementing policies, programmes and projects that aim to address and respond to the needs of youth and adolescents, both men and women,” she added.

According to Samith, the government is prioritising the Cambodia’s 2030 sustainable development goals, one of which is to eliminate gender-based violence by 2030, in line with the commitment made at the 2019 International Conference on Population and Development in Nairobi, Kenya.

“By 2030, Cambodia aims to achieve ‘three zeros’: Eliminate maternal mortality, eliminate unwanted births, and eliminate gender-based violence,” she said.