February 2013


Doctrine divides, Action unites

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Education and Street Children in Cambodia

Sopharak Hem

The streets are home to too many children in Cambodia, who work
to survive and for whom education is a dream for which they see
little relevance. (Photo from www.environmentalgraffiti.com)

Today education is the most important way to transform people and all societies to live in harmony and peace rooted in justice. Conversely, education is one of the most dangerous ways to control and limit people’s understanding about their reality of life, their thinking, etc. These problems emanate from history, economics, business, technology, modern lifestyles and the inflow of foreign cultures through the media and various forms of entertainment.

But why does it happen? Who creates and controls the curriculum?

No one has an answer because the system and structure has guided Cambodian society to move in this direction itself.

Since 1998, the Cambodian government has given everyone a chance to go to school, from primary school until high school with free school fees. It has been a great opportunity for us to acquire and develop our knowledge through formal education. We have found though that during our classes the education quality we get seems limited for some reason so we need to pay money for extra classes. It can help us better understand the lessons and give us more clarity about the subject. It is a similar situation for some schools in both towns and cities: students have to pay for extra classes and pay some support for the teacher to really take care of them during study time.

What happens though for children who come from families from the middle class and especially the lower class?

Some people leave their village to find a job or make a small business and live in the city. How can they afford an education for their children in this kind of situation? Some families can survive but still need their children to help run their business after school, but other children drop out of school because of the need to financially contribute to their family’s income.

Then there are some homeless people who can’t find a job or make any business. They survive by living with their kids along the street, in the park, next to buildings, in front of other people’s home, etc. Then, instead of studying, the children help their families make money by selling stuff, such as food, and collecting garbage, begging for money along the street, and some find part-time work in restaurants. They thus become child laborers, and some are street children. They lose their childhood and a chance to attain some knowledge at a very young age. By law, all of this work is illegal, and, in reality, it is violence against children. Many groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) try to help them get out of this cycle of poverty, but sometimes our government and other people seem to never notice these problems, or perhaps they are aware of them but can do nothing to help because they believe this issue is not their business.

Responding to this problem, however, is the Cambodia YMCA in the capital of Phnom Penh which has created the project Education and Support for Vulnerable and Exploited Cambodian Street Children. The aim of the project is to improve the life prospects of street and working children and young people in the city’s slums by empowering disadvantaged families to overcome barriers that prevent their children from having access to education and other essential services for their safety, well-being and development.

The project will register 90 vulnerable street children—50 children by September 2012 and 40 children by June 2013—to receive three hours of daily classes in Khmer, English, numeracy and life skills education based on the YMCA curriculum for 180 days. This non-formal education program is designed to equip the children with the requisite skills to integrate into mainstream education. The children are provided with stationary, learning materials and nutritional support. Street children from slum communities who have achieved the required admission standards through this informal learning will be integrated into local schools and will be supported with educational kits, meal allowances, uniforms and the secured commitments of teachers to ensure no informal fees will be demanded from the children. In this way, the children are assured that they can continue with their studies without the risk of dropping out due to financial pressures. At least 35 street children were integrated in local schools in October 2012, and another 25 children will be integrated by June 2013.

During the times I visited this project and involved myself with it, I found it a bit hard for us to give the children a clear understanding of how important education is for them because most of their thinking every day is about how to make money. Even sometimes during the class, the children would ask permission from their teachers to go back home as it was time for them to collect garbage and sell things to make money for their families. This choice means that the first occupation for them is finding money and their second priority is education. Although some children were a little bit overage to begin their studies, their level of understanding, however, was very limited. Even some children couldn’t use a pencil correctly at the age of 7 to 15 years old.

How then can we help and decrease this problem in our society?

In addition to help from us and many other NGOs that are providing an informal education, one other important ingredient that is really needed is cooperation from their families to encourage their children to return to their studies and to end their dependence on their children to make money for them. Otherwise, it is not easy to change the child’s concept of education and its importance in their lives. In this way, they can start their childhood over again even if it’s a bit late for them, but naturally, it is better than not having any childhood at all and missing their opportunity for an education and the better life it offers.

* Sopharak Hem, a Cambodian participant of the 2012 School of Peace (SOP) conducted by Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF) in Bangalore, India, is an ICF staff member in Phnom Penh.