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Girls' Education in Cambodia

Here is an excerpt from a group paper I worked on in my Education, Poverty, and Community Development class last spring. My peers and I were assigned to evaluate Cambodia's current education situation and make recommendations about how to improve their education plan. This is the part I wrote concerning female education, the issues, and our recommendations on how to best address them....

The Situation of Female Literacy
Female literacy rates in Cambodia have always struggled, and the unfortunate truth is that they’re not much improved. The female literacy rate is held to be around 76% country-wide, while male literacy sits at almost 85% (UN Statistical Database, 2004). Even with these rates, Oxfam GB claimed in 2003 that only 22% of Cambodia women could read a newspaper or write a simple letter (The Situation of Women in Cambodia, p. 45). In addition to this sad conclusion, literacy rates in rural areas are even lower, with a gap between the male and female literacy levels that is considerable: 20.6 percentage points (National Institute of Statistics, 2004). Another institution records rates in rural areas as female literacy: 56.3% and male literacy: 71.3% (The NGO Committee on CEDAW and the Cambodian Committee of Women, 2005). It’s also been estimated that 50% of rural women are illiterate and have not completed primary school education (The Situation of Women in Cambodia, 2004, p. 37). Dropout rates are significant; the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association estimated that “only 60% of students completed primary schooling in 2003 and most of those were male pupils” (The Situation of Women in Cambodia, p. 45). In older populations disparities are even starker: “Among those 65 years and older, only 15.7 percent of females are literate compared to 71.4 percent among males” (National Institute of Statistics, 2004).

There are a number of reasons for these low literacy and high drop out rates. Three specific reasons for the low levels of primary education for girls in Cambodia are put forward in The Situation of Women in Cambodia:
"The first factor is rooted in traditional stereotyping of women. In rural areas women are expected to undertake domestic work around the home and hence the efficacy of educating girls is neither understood nor perhaps accepted. In some instances education is even viewed as a hindrance to women as some men may not wish to marry an educated woman. Therefore in poor households priority is given to educating sons rather than daughters, who can be kept home to assist in domestic chores. The second factor is the availability of schooling. Underpaid and under-resourced teachers ask for informal enrolment fees from students to maintain the upkeep of the school and staff. In addition to these fees are sundry expenses such as pens and textbooks. Therefore in practice education can place a large financial burden on poor families that in some instances cannot be met. According to UNICEF, while initial enrolment rates for first time students are reasonably equitable, the aforementioned factors ensure a significantly higher drop out rate for female students in primary education" (p. 46, 2004).

Justifying Female Literacy in Cambodia: Potential Effects on Poverty Reduction
There are a number of reasons to address the root causes of and ultimately the entire issue of low female literacy. Increased female literacy has been shown to positively affect a variety of factors that frequently keep developing countries in poverty. Female literacy is highly correlated with lower rates of maternal mortality: “Women with formal education tend to have better knowledge about health care practices, are less likely to become pregnant at a very young age, tend to have fewer, better-spaced pregnancies, and seek pre- and post-natal care” (The World Bank website, 2008). The lifetime risk of maternal mortality in Cambodia is 1 in 36-- certainly a notable statistic that needs addressing (Save the Children, 2006).

Additionally, female literacy can have a positive effect on gender disparities. It has been noted that a lack of education greatly inhibits women’s understanding of their rights to equality and protection under the law. This can make them “vulnerable to repeated cycles of domestic violence and abuse. It can also make it very hard for rural women to break out of the poverty cycle by finding off-farm employment in non-exploitative trades” (The Situation of Women in Cambodia, p. 38). The traditional acceptance of violence and discrimination towards women is perpetuated by the lack of both female and male education. Research shows that poor and uneducated women represent the majority of domestic violence victims (The Situation of Women in Cambodia, p. 14). Research has also demonstrated a relationship between increased domestic violence and growing poverty (p. 14). Therefore, reducing violence against women could become a significant contributor to poverty reduction.

It is also well established that “mothers' education has positive effects on child nutrition in developing countries” (Moestue, H. & Huttly, S., 2008). On average, each one-year increment in mother’s education corresponds with a 7-9% decline in under-5 mortality. This kind of effect is needed desperately in Cambodia where under-5 mortality is on the increase: the rates jumped from “115 per 1,000 in 1990 to 143 per 1,000 in 2005 (New York Times, 2007). Save the Children recorded infant mortality rates at 90 deaths per 1,000 children in 2006, an equally alarming statistic. Given the above noted statistic of maternal education with decline in child mortality, if Cambodia increased female education by even just a few years, it would nearly eliminate all child mortality.

Although Cambodia does acknowledge the need to address its neglected and deficient female literacy rates, not enough is being done to remedy the issue. In its’ “Fast-Track Initiative” much is said about the value of female literacy, while practically nothing is outlined to actually address the issue-- particularly the plight of rural women. Because “NSDP is a live document, capable of being adjusted and updated annually,” we recommend that Cambodia adopt the following specific plans to redress its negligent rural female literacy rates (Cambodia Plan, p. 1 Exec Summary). In the following sub-section we detail a specific plan to address the needs of rural women and their daughters.

Female Literacy: A Family Approach
The rural female population needs a plan that will address the root causes of struggling literacy rates: female stereotyping, lack of opportunity, and expense of schooling. Our solution to address the expense of schooling is to provide government-funded scholarships to girls in rural areas. One of the major reasons girls in these areas don’t attend school is because of the fees associated with attending, which parents choose to only pay for their sons (if they can even do that). By providing scholarships for daughters, parents will be more inclined to allow their daughters the opportunity of attending school. Over time, this might also help minimize the stereotyping of girls as less valuable and as the lesser candidates for schooling.

Our second solution helps address the lack of opportunity and general stereotyping of girl students. One of the difficulties of attending school for these rural girls is the lack of familial support. We propose providing night classes for rural mothers and other female adults where they can receive literacy training through local methods. This might include the learning of khmer through agricultural study, or learning how to read by studying principles of small-business finance. This well help to not only empower these mothers and women in their financial situation, but provide them much-needed literacy and the capacity to support their daughters in their studies. Given that these women are busy running households and caring for children, we recommend that these night classes be offered 2-3x a week, so that their evenings aren’t monopolized, but they still have adequate repetition to learn.

After these night classes are implemented and the adult women are beginning to learn principles of literacy, we recommend the facilitation of mother-daughter study groups. These could take place in the afternoon or early evenings, after the girls finish their half-day of alternative vocational primary school, and between or after afternoon work. These study sessions could be facilitated in local village centers, or small programs and lesson plans could be sent home with the mother/daughter students, where they could work on assignments together in their spare time. By developing these mother-daughter study groups, rural women and their daughters would be empowered for the first time, not only in literacy, but with the empowerment of a support group of other local women and girls. These study groups would encourage camaraderie and support in the difficult task of learning literacy, particularly in the face of potential sexism. The mothers and women will be better able to learn literacy in their busy, older age, and the young daughters will feel supported and encouraged by their student mothers and grandmothers.

We feel that although the concept of mother-daughter study groups is new, it will be effective in facilitating growth and support for women in rural Cambodia. This program effectively addresses the issues currently hindering the improvement of female literacy, and will ultimately correct backwards stereotyping and encourage female empowerment, to the benefit of all. As has been demonstrated in previous sections, the empowerment of women (particularly through venues of literacy) is very effective in facilitating poverty reduction and sustainable growth. As Dr. J.E. Kwegyir Aggrey said so profoundly, “If you educate a man you simply educate an individual, but if you educate woman you educate a family.” We feel confident that this will hold true for Cambodia, and as the government extends its resources to support our recommended programs, the Cambodian people will see the miraculous result of educating their nation’s mothers and future mothers.


jadefrank's picture

education is a right!

Hi Kels,

Thank you for sharing with us your research on female literacy in Cambodia. I found this sentence so powerful and important, "It has been noted that a lack of education greatly inhibits women’s understanding of their rights to equality and protection under the law. This can make them 'vulnerable to repeated cycles of domestic violence and abuse.'" So true.

I especially enjoyed reading the solutions that you came up with to address this problem. I love the idea of mother-daughter study groups. What a beautiful concept!

I encourage you to join the Cambodia Cafe and re-post this article there.

Please continue to share your work and your voice on PulseWire! I love reading your journals.


kelsperry's picture


Thanks Jade!

I agree that that quote is a winner. So many good ones. I was really pleased with the ideas we came up with, I'd love to put them into action somehow, whether in Cambodia or in other rural areas of the world. I went ahead and posted it to the Cambodia Cafe, like you suggested.

Cheers! :)

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