Notes from the Field

Equal Access to Education for Women in Rural Cambodia

March 2, 2011

This year marks the centennial celebration of International Women’s Day, and its theme – promoting equal access for women to education, training, and science and technology – resonates personally for Chroeung Sok Vorn, a rice farmer from Cambodia’s rural Kampong Cham province. “I’m a poor widow. Even though I have many children, I still encourage all of them to go to school. I don’t keep them to work at home. In the past, people kept the girls at home. They didn’t want the girls to study much. But I’m not like that. I want to encourage all sons and daughters to have a higher education.”

Virenra Yang

Virenra Yang, who is 19, will be the second girl in her family to receive an educational scholarship, and is now attending Western University in Kampong Cham.

Her younger daughter, Virenra Yang, who is 19, will be the second girl in her family to receive an educational scholarship, and is now attending Western University in Kampong Cham. Virenra is majoring in finance and banking, and hopes to be an accountant one day.

The first step in promoting equal access to education for girls often comes from a parent’s commitment –like the sacrifices that Virenra’s mother has made for her daughters. But fulfilling this commitment is particularly difficult in a country like Cambodia, which continues to face daunting development challenges as it rebuilds from nearly 30 years of conflict. Although Cambodia has experienced remarkable economic and social development over the past decade – GDP growth was at a high annual average of nearly 9 percent until the global economic turndown hit in 2009 – about 35 percent of Cambodia’s population still lives below the poverty line, and 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas, where access to education, health, and other social services remains limited.

These poor Cambodian families are more likely to educate their sons than their daughters. Cambodian girls face great pressure to drop out of school early to go to work and contribute to their families’ incomes. According to a recent report from the Education Management Information System (EMIS), education participation rates in Cambodia continue to be very low – only 33 percent of school-aged girls are enrolled at lower secondary school level and 11 percent at upper secondary school level. There are more males than females at all levels of education, and this gap widens as education levels increase. Unequal access to education causes a shortage of university-educated women in Cambodia, perpetuates negative stereotypes of women’s roles, and limits their ability to take on leadership roles in communities, businesses, and even politics.

The need for increased access to and better quality of education is especially critical in Cambodia, a country where nearly 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25. For girls and women, who make up more than half the population but represent a minority of university graduates, greater access to education is one proven way to ensure that they can lift themselves and their families out of poverty and better contribute to the development of their communities and their country.

The Asia Foundation, with the Cambodian organization Kampuchean Action for Primary Education (KAPE), started a scholarship program in 2000 to help poor rural girls bridge the gap between primary and secondary school, the time when girls are most likely to drop out of school to find paying jobs. The program provides scholarships for girls from low-income families allowing them to continue their education beyond primary school. To date, these scholarships have helped over 2,860 disadvantaged young girls finish secondary school.

This year, with the support of the Shirin Pandju Merali Foundation, some of these girls will have access to the full cycle of education for the first time. Through the newly launched Cambodia Tertiary Scholarship Program, 66 girls (including Virenra) are pursuing four-year bachelor degrees at Western University in Kampong Cham, one of the most densely populated provinces in Cambodia and the second largest origin community for young migrant laborers to Cambodia’s cities. At university, they will study such subjects as accounting, management, and public administration. Many aspire to become lawyers or business owners, while others aim to work in leadership roles in the non-profit sector.

These scholarships have given girls like Virenra the economic means to stay in school and the chance to pursue careers of their choosing. For Virenra’s mother, who had the determination to fight the status quo and send her daughters to school, this program strengthens her commitment to girls’ education within her community. And for us, this provides a reminder that the values celebrated on International Women’s Day are advanced each and every day, by local champions across the globe, and can even come in the form of a promise from one mother to her daughters.

Sarah Wan is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer for Corporate and Foundation Relations in San Francisco and Nicole Sayres is the Foundation’s deputy country representative in Cambodia. They can be reached at swan@asiafound.org and nsayres@asiafound.org, respectively.

View all posts by Nicole Sayres

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