Let our indigenous girls and female youths learn

US first lady Michelle Obama shares a laugh with some schoolgirls as she attends the Japan-US Joint Girls Education Event at the Iikura Guest House in Tokyo
US first lady Michelle Obama shares a laugh with some schoolgirls as she attends the Japan-US Joint Girls Education Event at the Iikura Guest House in Tokyo yesterday. AFP

Let our indigenous girls and female youths learn

The women of Cambodia say : A very warm welcome to first lady Michelle Obama.

“Let Girls Learn” is a noble cause and having Mrs Obama as its champion and to include Cambodia as the only Asian country in this noble endeavour is timely and significant. Investing in the education of these voiceless members of the population is not just a human right issue, but the benefits Cambodia would reap from the political determination would be of billions of dollars and would save thousands of lives.

In Siem Reap, the US first lady will hear of the achievements, the needs and the challenges Cambodia faces in the education sector. But will the US first lady know that thousands of indigenous girls and female adolescents drop out of school because their entire communities have been forcefully relocated, because their families’ farm land are now sugar plantations owned by tycoons, or because Beung Kak lake has now become filled-in land? The argument will be that the first lady is not in Cambodia to address political issues but President Obama himself said: “‘Let Girls Learn’ is not just a humanitarian issue, it is a political and security issue, and that’s why it needs to be a foreign policy priority.”

During a recent visit to Areng Valley, a Choung indigenous community on the Cardamom Mountain put me face to face with the painful reality that the girls and young adolescents of this indigenous community will miss out on education as their mothers and grandmothers did for generations.

Sy, a 25 year-old indigenous woman in Areng Valley expressed her deep regrets for not having had the opportunity to continue beyond grade one. Like other girls in Areng Valley, Sy started school when she was 8 years old.

She taught herself to read and write after her teacher left the valley just as she completed grade one. Sy sadly looked at her young daughter as she spoke of the barriers she had to overcome to complete grade one.

She knows that her daughter’s chance of completing primary school is slim as the village teacher has to teach all the six grades in one single classroom, in the roofless village school. Now that the government has granted the right to Sinohydro, a Chinese company, to explore the possibility of constructing a hydroelectric dam, Sy has been very actively engaged in defending the rights of her people to remain in Areng Valley thanks to the advocacy and leadership training she and other Areng Valley women have received from various NGOs.

If she had a higher education, she would lead her community to the capital city on her own. If she could write better, she would send Prime Minister Hun Sen a letter expressing her views of the danger of the dam. Other women I met with in Areng Valley speak with the same strong determination to see their daughters complete at least six years of school in the village. It is of an impossible dream to them to see their daughters reach 12th grade, because they have never seen any other school but this village school or the commune school.

Empirical findings clearly show that if all women had a secondary education child mortality would be cut in half, saving 3 million lives. Furthermore, maternal deaths would be reduced by two-thirds if each mother completed primary education. UNESCO reports that a literate mother has a 50 per cent higher chance that her child will survive past the age of 5.

Let us use the visit of Mrs Obama to call for a review the National Policy on the Indigenous Peoples and to provide the Ministry of Education the much-needed budget for the construction of schools, latrines, dormitories, roads and incentives for our indigenous female teachers to serve their girls and female youths.

Mu Sochua is the member of parliament in charge of women, children and migrant workers for the office of the minority leader.

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