Most would agree that every child has the right to an education, but for many kids around the world, this right is still not a reality, or at the least, severely compromised. One such group are the children from indigenous communities. In places such as Cambodia, where the public education system is underdeveloped as it is, children from ethnic minorities are less likely to been enrolled in school. And if they are enrolled, they are at a higher risk of dropping out of school. The many challenges they face often turn out to be insurmountable for them.
Educational Barriers for Ethnic Children
Many of the ethnic minority communities are remote, hard to access and lack basic facilities (such as schools). Poverty is widespread and many ethnic families can simply not afford to send their kids to school, which is in principle free but often involves informal fees and always attracts costs for school materials, transportation, uniforms and meals. There is pressure for the children to stay at home instead, helping with chores and making a living.
The Extra Language Barrier
Ethnic minority children also face language barriers: the language of instruction at school is not their mother tongue, so from the start, they are on the back foot to keep up in class, an impossible task for many. Learning materials such as books in their own language are not available, and the teacher cannot speak their language. All this severely compromises the children’s chance of going through their school years successfully. Many drop out altogether not long after starting school.
Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri Provinces, Cambodia
In Cambodia, this is nowhere better illustrated than in the remote northeastern and sparsely populated provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri, where the majority of the population belongs to one of the various ethnic minority groups such as the Pnong, Krung and Tampuan, to name but a few. Take, for example, O’Chrum district in Ratanakiri province, where 85% of the population consists of ethnic minorities, mainly Krung and Tampuan, yet the language of instruction in school is Khmer (Cambodian). Aide et Action has been working in this area to improve the school system so every child, including those from these indigenous groups, has access to a quality education that is relevant for them, in their mother tongue.
Kroch Primary School is one of the schools that has signed up to the Aide et Action bilingual education project. 70% of the children that go to this school are Tampuan. They speak Tampuan at home, but once they start going to school – if they make it there at all – they find themselves in a world where only Khmer is spoken.
A Teacher Who’s Known Disadvantage
Someone who has experienced the disadvantages that most indigenous children here face, but who is also part of the new wind that, thanks to Aide et Action’s project, is bringing education in the Tampuan language to this school (and other schools) is teacher Vichika LOU (29), a proud Tampuan man and father of a little boy. He is in his 7th year of teaching grade 2 (in the morning) and grade 3 (in the afternoon), and for the last 3 years has also been teaching Aide et Action’s bilingual program in these early grades.
“When I was a kid, my dream was to become a nurse. But going to school was already hard from the word go. To reach the nearest primary school, I had to walk 4 kilometers to get there, and 4 kilometers back home, every day. I felt constantly tired and also hungry most of the time as my family was poor and could not provide us children with enough nutritious food. My family did not have a motorbike or even a bicycle, that’s how poor we were. I hung in there, but then after 2 years of going to school, I had to stop anyway, because there were no teachers left at the school, something which is not uncommon here. There are simply not enough trained teachers in Cambodia, and the area is so remote so not many want to come live here.
This said, I did start going to school again later on, but we always had teachers irregularly, sometimes we did not have a teacher for a week, for example because the roads were impassable or they needed to help their families on the farm. Sometimes we did not have a teacher for very long periods. I was very determined to keep studying, but all in all, it took me until I was 15 years old to finish primary school.”
A Dream Takes Shape
“At that age, I started dreaming of a little family of my own, and thought how wonderful it would be if I could teach my children and other children in my own village so they do not have to experience the same difficulties I had.
So that’s when I knew I wanted to become a teacher. It has been a long, hard road. To become a teacher, we need to go to the State School for Primary Teachers, which is in the town of Stung Treng, far away from home in a different province. There is no such school in our own province. After that, I also moved to Banlung, the capital of Ratanakiri province, for 2 years to study English. So now I am fluent in both Tampuan and Khmer, and can also speak some English.”
Teaching from the Heart, in my Own Language
“I am so happy to be a teacher in Kroch Primary School. I teach from the heart – all I want is that the children can get a good education, with sufficient trained teachers, so they can have a better future. I am so happy to know I am contributing to that. And best of all, thank to Aide et Action’s bilingual education initiative, I can now also teach my own language, Tampuan, at school, and work with the books and learning materials in Tampuan which have been developed with the help of Aide et Action.
The aim of the multilingual education program is to help young ethnic children learn their own language, but also the Khmer language in the early grades (grades 1 to 3), so they do not fall behind from the start. In grade 1 they study 20% in Khmer and 80% in Tampuan, in grade 2 it is 40% Khmer and 60% Tampuan, and in grade 3 that becomes 80% Khmer and 20% Tampuan. After that, they can transition effortlessly into Grade 4 where Khmer is the only language of instruction. Isn’t this a great thing?
The program is now in its 3rd year and the children just enjoy coming to school more because of it. They are so happy to have a teacher that speaks their language. They are no longer afraid to come to school and they have a lot more confidence. They also find the classes a lot more interesting and relevant to them, with books in their language and topics that mean something to them. Thanks to Aide et Action’s project, we also have access to tablets and a TV screen on which we download interactive bilingual learning materials, something that goes down very well with the children. And then there is also the great library we have now. The kids love it. As you can see, they do not only come here for the official library sessions, but love to hang out here and browse or read books during their free time!
The bilingual classes are also good for me to keep up my Tampuan language skills, and of course it helps preserve our culture.
Yes, I am very happy with this program at school and my role. First and foremost, I want to be a good teacher, a role model, and maybe one day become a school director. For me this is all about helping the children in my community, making sure they can come to school and learn well. “
In Southeast Asia, Aide et Action works with many ethnic minority communities in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam to help them improve their local school systems and develop the resources they need so every child has access to a quality education that is relevant for them, and in their mother tongue. We work with schools, but also parents and communities as well as policy-makers to ensure that they become empowered and capable of improving and adapting their education system into the future.