This article by AEA Cambodia and KAPE has been published by the United Nations Girls Education Initiative
Ethnic minorities often experience high levels of poverty, the root causes of which frequently lie in discrimination, marginalization and exclusion. Imran Rasitas, 10 years old, is from the Cham Muslim minority group in Cambodia. She lives in a small bamboo cottage in Chum Nik commune, Khroch Chhmar district of Tbong Khmum province near the Mekong River. Her mother Kry Mas, is a widowed farmer who is struggling to make a living. With this kind of seasonal job, she can only earn from 3.50 to 5 USD per day.
Rasitas was a grade 5 student at Chumnik Primary School which is about 2 km away from her house. She often came late to school and was sometimes absent because the only bicycle the family owned had to be used to work in the rice fields. Rasitas had to borrow her friend’s bike and sometimes she walked to school. She ended up dropping out of school.
“The inequalities experienced by minorities manifest themselves not only in terms of income or wealth, but also in terms of lack of opportunity and poor access to public services such as education,” explains Ekvisoth Khatty, Aide et Action (AEA) programme officer. “Although the level of discrimination of the Cham community by the general community is quite low, they mainly experience social and economic marginalization.”
Tahieth Sless, the Project Manager for the Kampuchean Action for Primary Education (KAPE) explains that some cultural barriers remain in Cambodia and can be addressed: “We can observe in schools that Cham and Khmer children did not interact with each other but tended to create separate groups. We decided to ask the school director to assign seats in the classroom so Khmer and Cham children can learn and grow together from an early age.”
It is important to address poverty, which is a main barrier to education for many. Rasitas and her mother were encouraged by Mad Hakim, a member of the School Support Committee which represents the villagers in decision-making for the school’s development, to be involved in an education project implemented by KAPE as part of the Cambodian Consortium for Out-of-School Children (CCOSC). The CCOSC is led by AEA and co-funded by Educate A Child (EAC). As a result of her decision to engage in the project, Rasitas has since received a scholarship to attend school.
She is now back to school and attends regularly. She is also involved in many activities with her friends and through the children’s council. “It is not a problem anymore to buy school materials,” she says smiling. Rasitas was provided with two sets of school uniforms, a pair of slippers, five note books, four pens, a pencil and a ruler for the first year scholarship distribution. “I don’t want to drop out of school because so many people were worried about me, they encouraged me and tried to help my family. I have to be grateful and keep the top grades in class.”
Her mother also explains: “I am very glad my daughter could get these materials. It is not easy for me since my husband died, sometimes I need Rasitas to help me to work to survive. I don’t have any other choice.” She added: “Since Rasitas got this support, I can spend less for her so I feel better. I am very proud of Rasitas good results at school. I really want her to be a smart student and study as long as possible.” Rasitas is expected to complete her primary education.
Overcoming the language barrier
In Cambodia, the officially recognised language is Khmer. Cham people speak a different language than the national language, which can bring further challenges in accessing state services such as education. “When I was 6 years old, I remember it was very hard for me to understand what the teacher said,” explains Rasitas. This is the reason why the programme includes bilingual classes with a main teacher and a bilingual classroom assistant. As Rasitas reinforces her skills in Khmer writing, reading and speaking, she increases her chances to access higher levels of education in Cambodia as the language of instruction in the country is usually Khmer.
“We need to overcome the barrier of language and to ensure all children have a chance to learn and integrate into Cambodian society” says Ekvisoth Khatty. “Children who attend school in an unfamiliar language and culture are less likely to succeed in their studies. They will also struggle more to access education and stay in school. This results in low educational attainment and high dropout rates.”
Elderly Cham people have witnessed a dramatic change in girls’ education in their community. In the past, girls were not allowed to go to school. Tahieth Sless explains: “It is an old mentality in the Muslim culture. Today, a few Cham people still think that girls do not need high school and that they should get married young. However, the government in Cambodia with the support of NGO’s intensify efforts to provide the right to education to all, boys and girls. We make awareness raising sessions and we discuss with parents about the importance of girls’ education. Today, there is gender parity.”
This year, a total of 311 children have enrolled in Rasitas’ school, 47.5% girls. In addition, scholarships have been distributed to 12 children, including eight girls. “We must ensure the right to education to all minority groups regardless of their ethnic, religious or other identities. We commit to increasing efforts, not only to address inequalities from the perspective of those marginalised, but to promote equality and non-discrimination through education and awareness raising,” concluded Ekvisoth Khatty.