This article by AEA Cambodia has been published by the United Nations Girls Education Initiative
“I am from Tbong Kmum,” says Sopea,* a 13 year old girl from Cambodia. “My parents are divorced and first I lived with my father. He used to beat me. I could go to school and I was in grade 4, but it was difficult. I worked in the rice fields and I also picked lotus leaves out of the pond so my father could sell them.” Like many adolescent girls in Cambodia, Sopea had household obligations. She was in grade 4 until she dropped out of school to join her mother in Phnom Penh. She then worked with her sister in the streets: “I sold fried potatoes and fried chicken.”
According to the 2001 national survey led by a NGO called Mith Samlanh (MS), between 10,000 and 20,000 children work in the streets in Cambodia – among them 38% are girls. Girls who live and/or work in the streets are exposed to various kinds of danger: sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and violence. “Because there is a higher proportion of boys in the streets, we heard stories of several boys raping one girl,” says Nao Phalla, an officer from MS. “Girls also report stories about policemen, security guards or men in uniforms, arresting them at night to have sex with them. They are often beggars or flower sellers and they are very likely to fall into prostitution.”
In addition to the hardship and abuse that results from life in the streets, one of the most difficult challenges facing these children is marginalization. “They are excluded,” explains Nao Phalla, “because they do not have access to formal education, legal documents, public services or the skills to find a job.” This situation further isolates them from the general community which tends to stigmatize them. “The failure to address inequality, stigmatization and discrimination based on wealth, gender, ethnicity, language, location and disability, is holding back progress towards Education for All” said Marong Chhoeung, Aide et Action (AEA) Programme Officer. “They (children in the street) are excluded because they do not have access to formal education, legal documents, public services or the skills to find a job.”
Addressing marginalization through girls’ education
While Sopea was working in the street, outreach social workers came to meet her and her family. Unlike other street children, she enthusiastically wanted to be referred to an educational centre for street children because her mother was keen for her to continue her studies. “One day, some people from MS came and talked to my mum,” she remembers. “They said to her, me and my sister, we could go to school and my mother was very happy about that.”
A few months ago, Sopea started remedial classes which are designed to help students behind in their studies to catch up to the appropriate grade level for their age. She will learn to achieve expected competencies in core academic skills such as literacy and numeracy. Sopea entered a project implemented by MS that is part of the Cambodian Consortium for Out of School Children (CCOSC), led by AEA and co-funded by Educate A Child (EAC). This programme addresses the issue of marginalization by improving both the accessibility and quality of education.
A special emphasis is put on the specific needs of street children from a gender perspective, in order to combat some of the increased vulnerabilities faced by girls and women on the streets. The approach includes gender-sensitive counselling and services, specifically trained female counsellors and nurses, and training and income generation support for mothers. Moreover, education materials have been produced on various gender specific themes such as reproductive health, domestic violence, women’s rights. Consequently, those benefiting from these services are better equipped to live safe and independent lives, despite their challenging circumstances.
©AEA Cambodia / Cao
Sopea is now relatively safe from the dangers and risks of street life. “I like everything in the educational centre,” she says with enthusiasm. “Here, people are kind. I can learn a lot by myself as well. We do sport, drawing, mathematics, reading and writing. My sister started beauty class too. My mother is very happy.” As Marong Chhoeung explains, “we work on appropriate solutions to address specific needs of marginalized girls and we pay special attention to girls because of their vulnerability and exposure to all kinds of abuse and exploitation in the streets. Education is not only a useful means to prevent children from being excluded from an educational and family environment; it is not only about integrating them into society – It is about empowerment and leadership for girls and women in Cambodia.”
Sopea will now join public school in the coming months. She is very excited about the idea of going back to school. “I want to become an art teacher. So, I want to come back to school. I want to draw a lot so I can improve my drawing skills.” Her dream for the future? “I want my friends to stop fighting. I want us to live in peace. I want all my friends to study so they can understand that we can live in peace.” Providing girls with an education helps break the cycle of poverty: educated women are less vulnerable to diseases such as HIV/AIDS, more likely to have a healthy family, and are more likely to send their own children to school. When all children have access to a quality education rooted in human rights and gender equality, it creates a ripple effect of opportunities that influences generations to come.
*Names and locations have been changed to protect the identity of children at risk