The Nuon family home on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
"IF you don't have money, don't come to learn,'' teachers at Samsam Kosal primary
school, on Phnom Penh's outskirts, allegedly told their students. Four pupils, all
siblings from one family, did just that.
Nuon Mao, 17, his brothers Poeu, 13, and Net, 11, and their sister Kimsan, 16, stopped
going to the school in 1995 because of the humiliation and embarrassment at not being
able to pay their teachers' fees.
"I felt ashamed in my class," Mao recalls. "I was especially embarrassed
around the younger boys and girls who could pay, when the teacher abused me about
not having money.''
After Mao and his brothers and sister all had the same problem, their father went
to talk to their teachers to ask them to excuse them from the daily 200 riels fee.
To their father, the teachers acted sympathetically, but for the children the trouble
continued in the classroom. The four children say they were verbally threatened when
they still failed to pay the fees.
"My teacher threatened me that I would be beaten again if I didn't pay tomorrow,"
Net recalls. His brother Poeu complains that he often had his hand beaten when it
was his turn to pay the teacher and he could not.
The children claim that they were forced to buy sweet cakes from their teachers to
keep them happy. When they could not afford to, their grades would suffer.
Caught between their father - who insisted that they go to school, and who had been
assured by the teachers that they would not have to pay - and their teachers - who
still demanded money - the foursome decided to quit school.
The Nuon family home on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. In the morning, brothers Poeu and Net help to collect shellfish to support the familyís income, before attending an NGO-run school in the afternoon.
Initially, they pretended to go to school, to avoid their father's anger, by leaving
their house every morning and going to hide for the day. Eventually their father
found out and decided to let them stay home.
"That was not their fault," their father, Men Noun, says of his children.
"It is very shameful as I am their father and could not afford for them to continue
Men Nuon says that he couldn't afford the 300 riels each of his children needed for
breakfast, let alone the 200 they needed for school.
With a total of six children, Noun, a fisherman, and his wife, who grows morning
glory, live in Thnot Chrum village about 10km southeast of Phnom Penh.
After a three-year hiatus in their education, Net and Poeu have finally been given
the opportunity to resume their studies. Two months ago, they began attending free
classes arranged by the NGO Maryknoll as part of a community health program.
But Kimsan and Mao are different; they still feel too ashamed. "I would like
to study but I cannot go. I feel embarrassed because I am the oldest student in the
class," says Kimsan, who at age 17 faces going back to primary-level classes.
Maryknoll still hopes to attract them back to school, as well as other local children
who gave up their education for financial reasons.
The two-pronged Maryknoll program emphasizes both basic health education and literacy
for those too old and too poor to be accommodated by the education system, according
to Sister Regina Pellicore of Maryknoll. The program offers free schooling and some
health supplies such as medicated soap to combat lice.
Teacher Moeun Kunthea, 19, says that her students were undisciplined and lacking
in basic hygiene when the class started two months ago, but they are better now.
Despite having rudimentary facilities - seating on a linoleum sheet under a wooden
house - the students say they are happy to study there.
"I like to learn here because she [the teacher] is nice and the class is close
to my house," says Srey Khin, 11, whose parents moved from southern Vietnam
Khin is typical of the other 14 students in the class. She gets up early in the morning
to help her parents collect shellfish or morning glory, and sell them at the market,
before going to school.
In the morning, brothers Poeu and Net help to collect shellfish to support the familyís income, before attending an NGO-run school in the afternoon. Lack of money led the pair, along with two other siblings, to quit their regular state school three years ago.
The Maryknoll classes are for one-and-a-half hours a day, recognizing that the children
need enough time to work to bolster their families' incomes.
The program is designed to complement the government school system, but it is also
useful for those who cannot always afford the state system. One of the Maryknoll
school's neighbors, Preab Naun, sends her son over when she can't afford the 200
riels a day at the state school.