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Girls-in-schools program fears

Girls-in-schools program fears

A successful pilot scholarship program, which has enabled underprivileged girls in

Kampong Cham province to attend one of 13 lower-secondary schools, is under threat

because of a drastic cut in funding.

And although the government plans to launch a similar nationwide program in September

as part of its Education For All scheme, critics are eyeing it with skepticism. They

fear that girls in the current scheme will lose out.

"Education is very important to me," said Chun Li Da, a 17-year-old scholarship

student at Prey Toteung Junior High School. "My parents expect that when I grow

up with this good education, I will be able to get a good job to help my family."

Under the scheme, about 1,100 girls aged between twelve and 18 have been able to

attend grades seven to nine in provincial schools. The scholarship program manager,

Ma Chan Sopheap, said the success rate was currently 90 percent, with 450 more girls

due to start in September 2003. Over 1,000 applications were received.

The annual cost per student is about $80 for a basic scholarship and $230 for a room

and board scholarship. Kampuchean Action for Primary Education (KAPE), a local NGO,

helped to raise funds and form education strategies.

A large part of the funding over the past three years has come from USAID. But KAPE's

senior technical advisor, Kurt Bredenberg, said that was likely to be discontinued-he

believed USAID would be unlikely to continue funding this program once the new government

program was in place. Another concern is that the program could lose its funding

if the US carries out its threat to withdraw support if the July election is not

deemed free and fair.

Under the new national scholarship program, families will get $49 in cash per student.

That, said Bredenberg, was a change in distribution. The current scheme is funded

by "payments in kind", including a bicycle, uniform, tutoring fees and

supplies.

He said it would be natural for the cash to be absorbed by the family instead of

being spent on their daughter's education.

"There are a lot of problems with money in our government," he said of

other concerns. "It leaks. It always leaks and if it doesn't, it doesn't get

to the schools on time."

Another change is that the government initiative will be available to boys and girls.

Bredenberg said the scholarship program was originally set up as "girls are

much worse off". He fears that girls will be sidelined again if parents give

priority to educating their sons under the national scheme.

Sot Sim, director of Prey Toteung Junior High, said the scholarships had allowed

the girls to develop their potential, despite their ongoing struggle with poverty.

Sim stressed the program was honoring Article 68 in the Constitution, which states

that everyone should have a basic education-Grades One to Nine.

"The scholarship is very important for these girls when their parents [suffer]

such poverty," said Sim. "Previously they had no chance to go on to lower-secondary

school. The scholarships benefit the girls who have never before had any opportunities."

Teacher Chin Phannee said the students had become more self-confident and ambitious.

Sopheap, the scholarship manager, noted that one of the biggest challenges of the

program was showing parents the importance of their daughter's education.

"At first, parents aren't really clear about what the goal is. They focus on

the material [aspects] like the bicycle and the uniform," she said. "Eventually

we count on parents to encourage their daughter's education."

The program also makes use of female role models to show the benefits of educating

girls: there are two women on Prey Toteung's six-strong monitoring committee. It

measures the scheme's success by meeting parents, examining dropout rates, and talking

regularly with the students.

Horn Sokheoun, 34, the mother of 18-year-old student Horn Sokha, harvests fruit from

sugar palm trees for a living. She wants a different life for Sokha and is willing

to make sacrifices.

"I am very thankful for the scholarship," she said. "We're willing

to struggle to keep Sokha in school. It's very difficult for us-my husband is sick-but

Sokha's education is very important. My education is very poor and I'd like my daughter

to have a better education than me."

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