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Educating Young Women in Rural Cambodia

May 20, 2015

By Siv Hong Lim

The women of Cambodia have made progress in education. From 2004 to 2012, the proportion of women to men in higher education grew from 29 to 38 percent. Yet, as these numbers also show, gender disparity in education persists in Cambodia, especially among the rural poor, where many girls never complete lower secondary school. The Cambodian Youth Policy, adopted in 2011, mandates equal opportunity for men and women in employment, education, and access to services. But poor implementation and lack of resources have stood in the way of these goals.

Photo/Karl Grobl

CTSP students are seen as role models, and families are beginning to invest in their own daughters’ educations. Photo/Karl Grobl

To help address this situation, the Merali Foundation and The Asia Foundation, working with local partner Kampuchean Action for Primary Education, established the Cambodia Tertiary Scholarship Program (CTSP), giving 115 young women from low-income families in Kampong Cham province the life-transforming opportunity to earn their bachelor’s degrees. A first cohort of sixty-five young women started classes in 2010. Ninety-four percent of them successfully graduated last September, and 92 percent have found full-time employment. A second cohort of 50 students will graduate this fall, and 92 percent have already found full- or part-time work.

Why is CTSP so successful?

CTSP helps students develop skills and capacities beyond the standard university curriculum, providing coaching on career development and job placement strategies, and connecting students with the private sector for internships and employment. Opportunities to interact with outstanding young professionals help develop leadership skills and promote volunteerism –powerful levers for personal growth and community engagement. Students have said that CTSP inspired them to change and grow in ways they had never dreamed of.

Phally Sim is a current CTSP recipient, now in her fourth year studying management. She was born to a poor, landless family. Her mother is a laborer, her father is often sick and cannot work, and her younger brother, who dropped out of school at young age, is a construction worker. Early in life, Phally showed a strong desire to learn, and she lived from age six with her uncle, who supported her learning English, until he died when Phally was twelve. For years after that, Phally walked seven kilometers to get to school, until she eventually won a national award in Khmer literature. With the prize money, she bought a bicycle. More importantly, she convinced her parents to continue her schooling.

When Phally was selected for CTSP 2011, she was a shy, quiet girl who rarely socialized with others. “CTSP has truly changed my life and inspired me to become a new person,” she says. “When I was in secondary school, I heard about computers – they sounded like a magic device – but I never saw one.” Phally is now a master coach for the CTSP computer-learning club and has volunteered to teach students in secondary school. She also has a job supervising service delivery at a restaurant in Kampong Cham, and she is using her income to help her family. When she graduates, Phally plans to study for her master’s degree.

Phally’s story is not unusual. Sopha Chhun is a 2014 CTSP graduate in accounting, and now works as an accountant at a micro-finance institution in Kampong Cham, where she is developing a wide range of professional skills. An orphan since she was very young, Sopha is using her earnings to help support her sick sister and three other siblings. Kieng graduated in 2014, and she is now an accountant with a local NGO. With her income, she is helping her older brother go to the University as she did. Dalin Sorn graduated in management, and now works as a production assistant at a garment factory in Phnom Penh. She supports her younger sister, who is studying accounting at Kampong Cham. And CTSP graduate Sothea Mol now works for an NGO, and is helping her family escape the chronic debt that has dragged them down for years. She is also paying for her nephew to take private English classes.

Several CTSP graduates are now working together to send other girls from Kampong Cham province to the University. They have created the Social Fund Initiative, each one agreeing to contribute one US dollar a month to a common fund. They expect to collect about $1,000 per year, which they will use to pay the University tuition of two or three girls.

CTSP successes like these reverberate in their communities. CTSP students are seen as role models, and families are beginning to invest in their own daughters’ educations. “Our success has changed the way parents in rural communities think about what girls can do in higher education,” says Sopha, “and villagers are now inspired to send girls to school.”

Siv Hong Lim is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation in Cambodia. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Cambodia
Related programs: Women's Empowerment and Gender Equality
Related topics: Education

1 Comment

  1. Dear Bong Siv Hong,

    I have copied this to post on our KAPE’s website and share it on our social network.

    Thanks for a good article to promote education for our Cambodian poor girls.

    Best Regards,


    Communications Officer

    KAPE, Kg Cham, Cambodia


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