Choun Chamroeun (L) and Choun Veaha study at their home in Soriya village, near Poipet town. Photograph: Will Baxter/Phnom Penh Post
Literacy is a catalyst for development and a force for peace.
International Literacy Day, celebrated tomorrow, is a good opportunity to assess our progress in pursuing literacy for all and consider the various challenges that lie ahead.
This year, the Cambodian government has chosen a theme that focuses on the importance of literacy in a growing nation: literacy as a foundation for development.
Literacy equips citizens with the skills and confidence to seek essential information and make informed choices that have a direct impact on their families and communities.
It also strengthens mutual understanding by enabling people to share ideas and express, preserve and develop their cultural identity.
Snguon Sophal is a great example of how literacy can support and improve livelihoods. The 35-year-old, from Kok Srok village in Siem Reap province, had to leave primary school in grade three, as her family could not afford her school uniform and learning materials.
But after participating in literacy classes at a community learning centre supported by the National Federation of UNESCO Associations of Japan, her life changed dramatically. Sophal can now read, write and apply her knowledge to her daily life.
As she proudly explains, “I can measure the size of clothes for my family and weigh vegetables to sell at the market. I will never be cheated.”
Knowing the importance of education, Sophal strove to become a pre-school teacher, providing help to young people and improving her community.
She is also playing an important role in disseminating information on health and agricultural activities to improve the lives of community members.
Sophal’s story, like many others, demonstrates how literacy helps individuals gain knowledge, actively participate in their community, increase their self-confidence and have a lasting impact on Cambodian society.
The benefits of a fully literate society are obvious, but the challenges remain. In Cambodia, the 2008 National Population Census placed the literacy rate of those aged 15 or older at 77.6 per cent.
Although this figure is an improvement on the 1998 census-based measurement of 67.3 per cent, the functional literacy rate (defined as a person’s ability to read, write and calculate for his/her individual or community’s development) was measured at a mere 37.1 per cent in 1999, suggesting that functional literacy levels could be significantly lower than the self-reported, census-based measurements.
Cambodia’s literacy challenge also lies in reducing disparities in literacy rates among age and gender groups (85.1 per cent among males, 70.9 per cent among females), between urban and rural populations (90.4 per cent and 74 per cent respectively), and among ethnic minorities and those most marginalised.
In Ratanakiri, home to a large number of indigenous people who do not speak Khmer, the adult literacy rate is just 45.9 per cent, as illiteracy is more common in remote areas where intervention is difficult.
More worrying is that the improvement in literacy rates appears to be slowing, compounded by the fact that a majority of illiterate individuals are members of hard-to-reach groups such as ethnic minorities, migrants or people with disabilities.
These numbers should be an urgent call for the government and its development partners to intensify their efforts to promote national literacy.
So what is Cambodia doing to overcome these challenges? The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports has been drafting a national Country Literacy Acceleration Plan under the Capacity Development for Education for All program, supported by UNESCO.
The plan aims to accelerate literacy improvement towards achieving a 2015 Education for All literacy goal by identifying priorities and strategies to reach marginalised groups.
The ministry is drafting this plan at district and provincial level, based on 500 maps of illiteracy rates.
Representatives from all provincial and district education offices participated in several capacity-building training sessions on evidence-based analysis and planning with clear priorities, realistic costing, efficient use of existing resource requirements, and mobilisation of partnership.
This is the first attempt led by the ministry at bottom-up planning to respond to the unmet needs of marginalised groups in Cambodian communities.
UNESCO hopes Cambodia can set a good example for other Asian countries through this learning experience as we approach the 2015 deadline for Education for All targets.
Several initiatives have also been implemented to accelerate Education for All progress under the UNESCO program. A pilot project has been developed to establish an education information system for non-formal education, needs and capacity assessment.
UNESCO has also been working on re-activating weak community learning centres, reviewing policy reviews and establishing a co-ordinating mechanism for non-formal education stakeholders.
Promoting literacy as the foundation for life-long learning will improve Cambodia’s human development and thus have an impact on the socio-economic development of the country.
UNESCO in Cambodia, in collaboration with the government, development partners and civil society, is working towards achieving literacy for all – a vital driving force for change.
Let us work together in accelerating literacy efforts to achieve our hopes for the peaceful, sustainable development of Cambodia.
Anne Lemaistre is the UNESCO representative in Cambodia