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How to develop a country without Education!

Mrs. Phymean with PIO's students

When I first began writing my final VOF assignment, I thought I would focus on education, because education has been the key to lifting myself out of poverty. But as I started looking at education I realized that it is only part of a whole series of problems that Cambodia faces, all of them interlinked and threatening to derail the country's recovery from 30 years of genocide, civil war, and economic stagnation. As part of my preparation for the final assignment, I planned to interview all kinds of experts and educators about how to improve education in Cambodia. Then I met Tan Eng, a young woman employed as a sex worker in Phnom Penh's notorious Blue Lounge. As she told the story of how she came to be in this line of work, I recognized that she was just one small symptom of a bigger disease that ails my country.

Tan Eng, 22, comes from Prey Veng Province, also known as “grand” or “long” forest, in the eastern part of Cambodia. It is a poor rural area where 53% of the population lives under the poverty line compared to 36% nation wide. Because of the lack of jobs, many young people migrate to larger cities or neighboring countries to seek employment. This makes them vulnerable to trafficking and sexual/labor exploitation. In addition, those younger children or siblings who remain in the villages are in high demand for child labor, as almost all families are involved in subsistence agriculture. When children are put to work, they tend not to attend school, thus perpetuating illiteracy or under-education for another generation.

Tan Eng moved into the apartment block where I live. We first met at a grocery store near our houses and realized that we were neighbors. She lives in a small rented room at the front of my building. She was reluctant to talk much about herself, initially, but as we got to know one another, she revealed what she did for a living. When I told her about the article I was writing, she agreed to be interviewed in the hopes that her story would help increase awareness about the conditions that caused her to take this path.

On the day we met for the interview Tan Eng seemed sad, and as we began talking, she described symptoms of depression and told me that she suffered from guilt and shame, as well as a well-founded fear of contracting the HIV virus. She described how she 'goes away in her mind' when having sex with a client and said she feels that her soul has left her body. “I would not have sold my body if my family had had enough food to eat or education”, she said sadly. “What I am doing now is so I can help my brother and sisters to study and to help with living expenses.”

As sad as Tan Eng's story is, what's even worse is that there are thousands of other girls just like her, girls who are either forced into the sex trade, trafficked to other countries, or fall into it because they have no education and it is the most they can hope to earn, having no other marketable skills. To understand why so many girls - and also boys and adult men and women - find themselves in such dire situations, one needs to understand the economic and psychological roots of Cambodia's dysfunction.

Cambodia is known as one of the world’s poorest countries. According to the UNDP Human Development Index Report, in 2004 Cambodia ranked 130 out of 177 countries. Annual per capita income was $256 in 1999. While so many Asian countries have prospered since then, Cambodia’s per capita income has risen to just $300 today, a virtual economic standstill. Approximately 36% of the population lives below the basic needs poverty line, with the poverty rate in the rural areas at 40%, four times as high as Phnom Penh, where it is only 10%. This imbalance between the countryside and the capital helps explain why someone like Tan Eng would try her luck in the big city: the alternative – staying in her village – means almost certain poverty and deprivation.

Cambodia’s achievements in education in the 1960s and early 1970s were systematically erased by the Khmer Rouge in the second half of the 1970s, when schools, equipment, and books were destroyed, effectively abolishing education. It is estimated that 75-80 percent of all teachers and secondary school students fled or were murdered from 1975-79. Overall, the Khmer Rouge regime was responsible for the deaths of approximately 1.7 million people by execution, starvation and forced labor. The economic and psychological toll of this genocide has yet to be calculated.

Thirty years after the genocide, its impact is still felt as families continue trying to make sense of what was lost to Pol Pot’s madness – loved ones, of course, but also an entire way of life, a sense of cultural continuity and belonging; the bonds that create a cohesive, functional society. I decided to revisit the Toul Sleng (Genocide) Museum. The first time I visited I remember feeling shocked – the images of violence seemed so recent and brought to life all the stories my parents had told me about the deprivation, violence and horror of those years.

I met a woman who was selling Cambodian history books there, and I asked her how she feels when she hears the name Pol Pot. Chan Sophal is 47 years old, so she was in her teens during the late 1970s. “I feel so much regret and anger with Pol Pot – I am sad about losing my family and also because of the torture and suffering they endured before they died” she said. Today she sees her mission as educating the world about what happened. “Even though my memories are painful, I am happy to bring all these books to sell here because so many tourists come to visit this museum, and they are really interested and eager to know about what happened.”

Many Cambodians, including my parents, have adopted a philosophical attitude about the past. Of course they remember what happened, but they try not to pass the sadness, anger and resentment to the next generation. My parents, for instance, told me that they did not want me to be sad or try to seek revenge for the family members we lost. Like so many, they are looking to the future, and I benefitted from their attitude, because they made it possible for me to go to college, despite their limited means. Tan Eng was not so lucky.

Post-Khmer Rouge, Cambodia has made an enormous effort to expand schooling. There has been a concerted effort to rebuild the education infrastructure, but this had to be done under tight budgetary constraints. This means that illiteracy continues to plague the country. Half of the rural population does not have a primary school in the village and more than 95 percent have no secondary school. Often a family can only afford to send one or two children to school. The others, like Tan Eng, have to work or take care of their siblings, sometimes both.

This combination of poverty and illiteracy is the main driver behind the phenomenon of human trafficking of Cambodian men, women and children to more prosperous neighboring countries like Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong,Vietnam, and even within Cambodia. Men are trafficked for forced labor in the agriculture, fishing, and construction industries. Women are trafficked for sexual exploitation and forced labor in factories or as domestic servants. Children are trafficked for sexual exploitation and forced labor in organized begging rings, soliciting, street vending, and flower selling. Their poor literacy makes them even more dependent on their “employers”, and many can see no way to liberate themselves from their appalling situations.

Interestingly, Cambodia’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Youth Rehabilitation found that 76 percent of trafficked persons returning from Thailand had come from families who owned land; 93 percent from families that owned their own house and had no debt on the land or house; and 47 percent stated that their mother was the facilitator of their trafficking.

These statistics seem to indicate that families themselves are complicit in the cycle of human trafficking. Again, illiteracy plays a role. Poorly educated families, especially those in financial straits, desperately trying to hang on to their land or home, are easy prey for the “employment agents” who come by their villages making grand promises of well-paying jobs abroad.

The global economic crisis has also contributed to trafficking. Cambodia’s economy was growing at a respectable 10 per cent annual pace between 2004 and 2007. As the impact of the crisis spread across the globe, Cambodia’s growth slowed to 6.7 per cent in 2008 and even lower in 2009. This caused tens of thousands of people to lose their jobs, particularly in key sectors such as the garment industry, tourism, and construction, creating a huge pool of unemployed workers susceptible to trafficking and the lure of prostitution.

For example, Tan Eng told me that as a housemaid, she could earn about 200,000 Riel which is US$ 50 per month. At the Blue Lounge she makes $100 plus $3-5 per customer, giving her a monthly income that is enough to cover food and school fees for her siblings.

The Cambodian government has responded to the crisis with a stimulus package targeted to boost spending on infrastructure, social programs and agriculture. In addition a tourism policy taskforce was recreated, with the aim of upgrading the industry and attracting more regional tourists. But even as an economic recovery seems to be underway, the damage has already been done for too many young women like Tan Eng.

There are some rays of hope, however. A number of NGOs are involved in efforts to bring schools and education to Cambodia’s neediest children. One of them is PIO – People Improvement Organization. Phymean Noun, 40, a Founder and Executive Director of PIO is a 2008 recipient of the CNN Heroes award. Her organization has set up tuition-free schools for the poorest of the poor, serving more than 10,000 children since 2004.

“My life is connected to those children who need help,” Ms. Phymean says. “No child should have to work on the garbage dump and sleep in the street. There is no greater joy for me than to see a child who once spent her days picking through rubbish looking happy, enjoying herself, learning to read and write and smiling with hope for the future.”

Come back to Tan Eng’s life, she is now having a belly ache as she has tried to drink beer every night she goes to work to serve her guests. I asked her why she didn’t try to drink it and she immediately replied me “Oh it is really impossible for the work as mine because if I had not drunk so they would not have given me money then how can I raise and help my family?” she is an oldest sister in her family – 3 sisters and 1 brother. I can imagine how hard to live in this world without education, Eng is a strong lady as even she has been driven to sex work but she always hopes to educate her siblings out of this field. She made me remember my past when my parents fought the barriers to send me to school to get education. Our lives are tough because of living in poverty so it is our obstacle to get education though.

While I was talking to her, I saw her eyes were so red showing me her life is struggling to live in this cyber world where only a darkness place for her life is. She told me she wanted to learn a skill such as cooking, beauty or tailoring skill but her siblings are so small “they can’t study if I quit my job now so it is only job that can help my family to recover our lives,” she added, “I don’t care about myself but I do hope I can help my siblings to get hi¬gh education and parents to live a better live.”

Her sisters are Thida, 20, studies grade 12; Theara, 19, studies grade 10; Theary, 17, grade 8 and her youngest brother is Bora, 15, is a fabulous student and has also been offered a 12 years scholarship from Beltie International School in Cambodia, a famous and expensive among privates schools in Cambodia. I think it is a good thing that Eng has tried and fought the obstacle to help their siblings go to school and I also understand that it is what she keeps working her current job just because she had never thought to recover her life now but she has only given her dream to her little sisters and brothers to have better lives in society. Her parents are at homeland planting vegetable to sell at the market, they can earn only 2,000 -3,000 Riel which is around 0.70$ per day.

Access to education is a way to build a strong society. Education allows people to become resourceful and search for answers to solve their own problems. And we all agree that education is the foundation of peace and development. As we have entered the 21st century, the interdependent era, we should work together to build a free and just society, knowledge oriented society, and inclusive society that will benefit everyone. One job may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but it is a chance for a struggling Cambodian to get on their feet, and that is truly something worth standing up for.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

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Comments

olutosin's picture

You guys Rock!

I will not envy this......So much efforts, so beautiful result. I know more about your education now, even more thatn yuor citizens. Thanks for the profounding efforts.

Olutosin Oladosu Adebowale
Founder/Project Coordinator
Star of Hope Transformation Centre
512 Road
F Close
Festac Town
Lagos-Nigeria

https:

Sarvina's picture

Hi sister Olutosin, Thanks so

Hi sister Olutosin,

Thanks so much for writing me this precious comment! It is such a wonderful encouragement. I am always moved by you. I have also learned from you a lot how to improve myself.

Love,

Sarvina

Regards,

Sarvina from Cambodia
VOF 2011 Correspondent

usha kc's picture

Dear baini, it's really

Dear baini,
it's really great one.Many of Asian country have been facing the same problem. More over our sisters are trading their body for minimum of basic needs.

Education is a powerful weapon to solve many of pathetic situtaion, Education can open the inner eyes of every one so it's good to give importance on Education.
You have shared genuine story of Tan Eng I enjoyed to read.It represent the story of many more Tan Eng.

I congratulate you for completing your final work.

Sarvina's picture

Dear didi, Thanks so much for

Dear didi,

Thanks so much for you lovely comment! I am always encouraged and moved by you. Yeah everyone needs education even we are so poor but we wish to get education as the rich does.

Love,

Sarvina

Regards,

Sarvina from Cambodia
VOF 2011 Correspondent

NI NI AYE's picture

That;s the point!

Dear sister

You could point out the main reason why some nations are taking time to be developed. Good education system is the key point to build a developed nation. I am so sad to hear about Tan Eng, and other women struggling with the risky life.On the other hand , the way the People Improvement Organization helping is very impressive. That give me a new idea of helping children to educate. Thank you so much for your research sister. You really found the way to develop education for your nation.

Love

NI NI .

Congratulations on Very Happy Teachers Day through ten years journey!

Sarvina's picture

My dear sister NI NI, Thank

My dear sister NI NI,

Thank you so much for taking time to read my final assignment! I know Education is so important for everyone but most of us who live in poverty - we are not able to come up with the high education even the government has provided scholarships. I am also happy to write and talk with some people I have written above. They make me feel strong to stand up. Yeah PIO is one of my favorite organizations for me in Cambodia. I do love Mrs Phymean's work, she makes me so moved with her activities helping those pity children. Eng shows me how to try to live in the earth - most of us are so struggling to live either to get education.

Love,

Sarvina

Regards,

Sarvina from Cambodia
VOF 2011 Correspondent

Judy K's picture

Cambodia

Sarvina -- Thank you for your very moving piece. The young woman's sacrifice for her siblings is amazing and reminds us how the horrors of war continue long after the bombs stop falling. The Cambodian focus on looking forward, toward building a better world for next generations rather than holding on to the past and seeking revenge can help all of us to build a better world. To paraphrase Ghandi, " Taking an eye for an eye only leaves everyone blind."

Judy K.

Judy Kugelmass

Sarvina's picture

Dear Judy, Thank you so much

Dear Judy,

Thank you so much for writing me an inspirable comment! Yeah Cambodia is looking forward to build a better world and we don't really want to reveng anthing, I do love this paraphrase Ghandi "Taking an eye for an eye only leaves everyone blind." Thanks once again for sharing this to me!

Love,

Sarvina

Regards,

Sarvina from Cambodia
VOF 2011 Correspondent

Judy K's picture

Cambodia

I visited Cambodia in 1988. Even then, when it was still so close to the war and Pol Pot times, the people I met were interested in looking forward, not dwelling on the bad times. I learned so much from the Cambodian people I met then and later in the USA.

I wish you and your family all the best.

Judy

Judy Kugelmass

Sarvina's picture

Dear Judy, I am glad to hear

Dear Judy,

I am glad to hear you ever visited Cambodia. Yeh around 1980 till 2000 - 20 years that Cambodia has tried to recover from the bad time Pol Pot. Even now we try to look forward to develop our country more. Even I was born in 1987 and didn't know what's happened during that time but I can feel how much pain from them how to live and work hard. It is really painful but now most people never think that time more - we just think how to develop our country, help young generation to get high education. I think it is a good thing in my country - not to reveng the things from the past.

Thank you Judy for your wish! I also wish you and your family all the best!

Love,

Sarvina

Regards,

Sarvina from Cambodia
VOF 2011 Correspondent

Judy K's picture

Remembering

Yes - it's important to move forward and not be held back by revenge. "Reconciliation" is what is needed and can be accomplished as it has in S. Africa. At the same time, it is important to learn from history to prevent horrible things such as the Cambodian genocide from happening again. Examining your country's history can help you understand the conditions that led to those tragic events and then work for change. We need to be sure we can say and mean "Never again." We also need to honor the memory of those who suffered before us, as we work to create a world that can live in peace.

Judy

Judy Kugelmass

Sarvina's picture

Dear Judy, I do love your

Dear Judy,

I do love your words. I am so moved by your inspiring words. Thanks so much!

Love,

Sarvina

Regards,

Sarvina from Cambodia
VOF 2011 Correspondent

Ruun Abdi's picture

Very informative piece

Dearest Sarvina,

I congratulate you for writing such an informative piece. I am so touched by your article. It is really sad for what happened to Tan Eng’s youth, and it’s something that still takes place within the community which forces many other young women who suffer silently just to help their families. Education is a power and a key to very opportunity in this world, but if

Lots of love,
RA

Sarvina's picture

Dearest Ruun, Thank you so

Dearest Ruun,

Thank you so much for taking time on my piece and writing me such an inspiring comment! Yeah many poor families in my country do it as they really need money to support their daily lives. I am lucky to be educated!

Love,

Sarvina

Regards,

Sarvina from Cambodia
VOF 2011 Correspondent

ssaeed's picture

Touching piece!

Dear Sarvina,

I loved reading this article! You have a wonderful style of writing that pulled all of my attention. I'm left feeling a need to figure out some way to help Tan Eng get into the field of work she likes....beauty, tailoring or cooking. Are there any micro-loan or training programs in Cambodia that can help her get a start in those fields and start her own business?

Thanks for enlightening us all with this article. :)

Sana

Sana

Sarvina's picture

Thank you!

Dear Sana,

Thanks so much for taking time to read my piece and writing me such an inspiring comment! Yeah in Cambodia, we have some micro-loan offered by some NGOs either micro-finance institution - but only thing that Eng can't afford it as this skill won't give her much money to support her family. Actually as you have read in my piece, her siblings are big enough to find jobs but unfortunately it is till hard for us who are poor. In Cambodia, only finish High School - not enough, no places accept us who have finished only this grade. So at least, her siblings are able to finish University and it is a reason Eng is still working her current job. I have no idea how to help her too! She only said she has to wait until her siblings finish University.

Love,

Sarvina

Regards,

Sarvina from Cambodia
VOF 2011 Correspondent

mrbeckbeck's picture

Very well done...

Sarvina,

You've done such a great job on this Feature Story! I love how you focused on one woman's story to show us a larger phenomenon. Clearly education and job access will make a huge difference in the lives of Cambodians, and help create a brighter future without having to resort to desperate solutions.

Thank you for this insightful and engaging story...and, congratulations on your successes with the program!

Best,
Scott

Scott Beck
World Pulse Online Community Volunteer

Sarvina's picture

Dear Scott, Thanks so much

Dear Scott,

Thanks so much for taking time to read it and writing me a wonderful comment! It means so much for me. I am happy and also sad to finish with the VOF program. I feel really miss all activities...!

Regards,

Sarvina

Regards,

Sarvina from Cambodia
VOF 2011 Correspondent

Fungai Machirori's picture

Wow Sarvina!

Thank you so much for writing about this. Tang Eng's story is so painful and I hope that one day ahe will be able to break out of the cycle of poverty. The part where you wrote that she 'goes away' when she is having sex really made me feel so sad for her plight.

Thank you for writing this so beautifully, so personally, so informatively. Every bit of the story helped to understand Cambodia better.

from today i live out of my imagination
i am more than my yesterday
tomorrow i plant a new seed
nothing that lies behind easy
nothing that is ahead real
my within is all i have today
*Napo Masheane*

Sarvina's picture

Hi Fungai, Thanks so much for

Hi Fungai,

Thanks so much for taking time to read my writing! It means so much for me. Yeah I hope so, I hope one day when her brother and sisters have jobs to do then she will be able to break it out. She is my good neighbor, I really understand her feeling well.

Your comment is inspring me Fungai, thanks once again dear!

Love,

Sarvina

Regards,

Sarvina from Cambodia
VOF 2011 Correspondent

Rachael Maddock-Hughes's picture

Wow!

What a powerful and articulate article Sarvina! Bravo! Thank you so much for sharing this information about your country with us, and opening up our eyes to the plight of women like your neighbor. It is so sad that she has to give up her life to help her siblings, but it is also courageous too.

Well done!

Rachael

"In every human heart there are a few passions that last a lifetime. They're with us from the moment we're born, and nothing can dilute their intensity." Rob Brezny

Sarvina's picture

Hi Rachael, Thank you so much

Hi Rachael,

Thank you so much for writing me this wonderful comment! It means so much for me. Yeah she is a courageous lady in my eyes! I am proud to know her and become friend since the day I asked her personal things for my feature article.

Love,

Sarvina

Regards,

Sarvina from Cambodia
VOF 2011 Correspondent

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