The Challenge - Why Educate Cambodia?

The Khmer Rouge are a chapter in Cambodia's recent history that so many Cambodians would like to close, yet the effects of the brutal regime are still prevalent today.  Upon seizing power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, undertook a barbarous restructuring of Cambodian society.  With the goal of transforming the country into a communist agrarian cooperative, the Khmer Rouge cut off communication with the rest of the world, abolished currency, closed schools, hospitals and factories, and marched city-dwellers into the countryside to undertake grueling slave labor.  Intellectuals, professionals, and monks were tortured and executed, eliminating nearly an entire generation of the country's educated people.  Almost two million died in all, if not by torture and execution, by malnutrition and disease.


The Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979, but the Khmer Rouge maintained a guerrilla war throughout the 1980's from areas around the Thai-Cambodian border.  The 1990's brought the reinstatement of Cambodia's constitutional monarchy and UN-administered elections but were still riddled with fighting.  It wasn't until 1999 that Cambodia finally had peace.   

Today, 30 years later, Cambodians are still recovering from decades of war, rebuilding their economy, clearing land mines and reviving their culture.  Poverty continues to be rife; 34% of Cambodians live on less than $1 per day.[1]  Rural areas lack access to clean water, electricity and even passable roads in the rainy season.  Tuberculosis, dengue fever and HIV threaten the health of the people.  And, widespread corruption challenges progress.

Cambodia's decades of war have also had a major impact on the country's educational system.  During the Khmer Rouge regime, teachers and educated role models were killed, schools were destroyed and books were burned.  Although new teachers have been trained and schools have been rebuilt, there continue to be a myriad of obstacles that challenge the country's ability to provide access to quality education:

A shortage of schools and classrooms, particularly in rural areas, limit the number of children who have access to basic education. Although most Cambodian villages have a primary school, many schools are still incomplete, meaning they do not offer a full grade 1-6 curriculum. Getting to a school where students can complete upper primary grades may mean traveling far distances from home, which is not always possible. Access to secondary school becomes even more difficult: only 5.4% of Cambodian villages have a lower secondary school and only 2% have an upper secondary school.[2] 

Poverty forces children to forgo school to support their families' most basic needs. Some families cannot afford the opportunity cost of sending their children to school. The time that their children would spend in class translates to lost time that the children could be contributing to the family income. Common work for Cambodian children includes fieldwork, tending to cows, collecting recyclables, begging, fishing, and construction work. The International Labor Organization estimates that nearly 20% of children ages 5-9 are involved in child labor; the percentage rises to 47% for children ages 10-14 and 34% for ages 15-17. Of the working children ages 5 to 17, only 45% attend school.[3]

Low compensation forces teachers to collect informal school fees from students creating a barrier to education for poor children. Primary school teachers' government salaries range between $20 and $50 per month, putting them below the poverty line. To supplement their salaries, teachers collect informal school fees from students, usually $0.02 - $0.05 per day. Although this may sound like pocket change, to a Cambodian family with five or more school-aged children, it is a substantial amount of money. So, although the Cambodian government has pledged free education, informal school fees keep many poor children from attending school.

Poorly trained teachers and high student-teacher ratios contribute to high grade-repeat rates among students. Until 2005, there were minimal requirements for teachers to get a contract position with the government. Many teachers, particularly in remote areas, had not even completed a secondary education. A fast-growing young population meant that establishing minimum qualifications would exacerbate Cambodia's severe teacher shortage. The shortage contributes to high student-teacher ratios, putting 40-50 students in an average-sized primary school class. The combination of poorly trained teachers and high student-teacher ratios contribute to high grade-repeat rates. In Siem Reap province, 12% of primary school students failed to advance to the next grade level at the end of the 2006-07 school year.[4]

A lack of school resources and little government funding results in insufficient teaching materials and school facilities. The Cambodian government pledges $1.50 - $1.75 per student per year to each primary school for teaching materials and school operating costs. The funding is often insufficient for even the school's most basic needs, leaving teachers to buy things like chalk with their personal money. 

These are the obstacles that Feeding Dreams (UK)'s programs are designed to overcome.

[1]    United Nations Human Development Report 2006
[2]    Cambodia Human Development Report 2000, Children and Employment
[3]    Cambodia Child Labor Survey 2001, National Institute of Statistics, Ministry of Planning
[4]    Siem Reap Provincial Department of Education, Youth and Sport Statistics, 2006-07