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Scarcity of schoolgirls hits home

Scarcity of schoolgirls hits home

Dropout rate after primary school skews enrolment at university

Great measures have been taken to improve the education of Cambodia’s youth in the past decade, largely due to an increase in the government’s education budget, which, according to the World Bank, has doubled since the 1990s, accounting for 20 percent of spending in 2007.

The Kingdom has seen more than US$2 billion in foreign investment in education initiatives such as Education For All National Plan (EFA), which aims to expand access to all Cambodia’s children by 2015. In the past decade alone, increased government spending has led to a decline in dropout and repetition rates and an increase in literacy and higher-education rates; however, these impacts have disproportionately impacted girls, who are still struggling against cultural and economic forces keeping them out of secondary school and university classrooms.

According to a UN report, “Situation Analysis of Cambodia”, released last month, the enrolment of girls in primary school is higher than boys, 50.4 percent compared with 46.8 percent; yet nearly 40 percent of these girls do not make the jump to secondary or higher education. Whereas 41.8 percent of males attend secondary or post-secondary schools, only 31 percent of females make it past sixth grade, leaving most of the Kingdom’s 15- to 24-year-old females working at home or in the low-wage labour sector, sustaining the cycle of poverty and low education that programmes such as EFA are designed to break.

Two years ago Chan Somart moved to Phnom Penh from her family’s home in Kompang Cham. Though her parents supported the idea, she says, she came to work on the city because of her own desire to earn an income and help her family financially.“If I weren’t working here, I wouldn’t be able to buy nice clothes, good food, or help my family,” she said, adding that, after living expenses, she usually has US$40 left over from her $100 monthly income to send home to her parents, who work mostly as farmers. The minimum pay for factory workers is generally $60-$70 monthly with overtime hours available to some.Chan Smart said she misses her family, but has many friends also living in apartments, which cost around $20 a month, near the factories on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. “I hope that I will start a family soon,” she said. “And if I work hard now, my daughters can study at university.” COLIN MEYN

The pressures to leave school are largely financial, with families in immediate need of income rather than education, but it is not always the parents pushing their kids out the door. “There is the push factor of families sending their daughters to work,” said Tous Sophorn, who is in charge of the migration project of the International Labour Organisation in Cambodia, “but there is also the pull factor where young women see personal benefits in pursuing opportunities at jobs in places such as garment factories rather than staying in school.”

Government and international development organisations must face the economic realities of impoverished young women, but oftentimes entrenched gender roles are the greatest obstacle to keeping females in school. Although he was unable to cite comprehensive data on the issue, UNICEF representative Richard Bridle suggested that the predominant factor in inferior education for girls is societal. “Although women contribute more, for instance, to the rural economy than do men, there is a feeling that male children need more preparation for the world of work than do female children ­– the man should be the breadwinner,” Bridle wrote in an email.

As is the case with education across the country, the problems facing young women are particularly severe in remote areas, where the hidden costs of enrolment, such as school supplies, uniforms and transport to school stand in the way of continuing a child’s education.

In the past decade, the government has put a great emphasis on building more primary and lower-secondary schools throughout the country to expand accessibility up to basic education through ninth grade; however, these efforts have not been matched at the upper-secondary level.

“Some of our students have to travel 18 kilometres to come to school,” said Men Sithol, who is the principal of Yeang Dankhom High School in Banteay Meanchey. “Many families do not have the time or money for their children to make this trip every day.”

Nongovernmental organisations and international governments have engaged with the ministry in a holistic approach to help make the journey to post-secondary school more feasible for young women in the Kingdom.

“We talk with families about the benefits and importance of education, regardless of a girl’s grade level,” said In Samrithy, executive director of Cambodia’s NGO education partnership, adding that many NGOs and foreign governments have provided scholarships to help schoolgirls stay in school, paying for supplies, uniforms, transportation and in some cases providing dormitories and covering living expenses.

The ministry declined to comment on this story, but in its summary report on education at the end of 2008, it reported that the net enrolment rate for girls in upper-secondary school was 13.8 percent, which fell below their target of 15 percent.


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