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For Cambodian girls, education is antidote to poverty and sexual exploitation
Seng Srey, who lives alone with her mother in Prey Veng Province, a poverty-stricken area in Cambodia, has reason to smile again. Thanks to OPTIONS, a programme run by World Education with financial support from UNICEF and the United States Department of Labour, she is receiving a scholarship that allows her to attend classes at Dey Thoy School in Bung Preah Commune.
OPTIONS scholarships enable girls at risk of dropping out to remain in primary and lower secondary school. In poor provinces like Prey Veng, where many families are forced to migrate to escape the impact of persistent floods and drought, the scholarships also help protect girls from being trafficked or sexually exploited.
“With an estimated 30 per cent of sex workers in Cambodia under 18 years of age, having less than three years of basic schooling and little or no vocational skills, the link between the lack of education and vulnerability is clear,” says Sok Kimsroeung, Programme Manager for OPTIONS Programme Prey Veng.
Out-of-school girls aged 8-12 can attend catch up courses that help them reintegrate in the formal system after one year, and for those over 12, there are basic and functional literacy courses and apprenticeships with local employers, such as tailors or other artisans.
"Being involved in life skills classes is what really makes me happy,” says Seng Srey with a big smile. “I want to learn and make people aware of the dangers we are facing so that my village can develop like [those] in other countries and stop all the problems like security, trafficking and the degradation of the environment. I just wished that all girls could study like me.”
Seng Srey is ambitious. She gets up at 5 a.m. every morning to do her homework because after school she has to help her mother in the field. She just started taking English classes and wants to become an interpreter.
Help that can make the difference
There is some hope for Seng Srey. The Cambodian government is committed to education reform and developed a National Education for All Plan 2003-2015 to provide the long-term vision. In addition to World Education, a number of local and international organizations are working to ensure Cambodian girls an education and to protect them from exploitation.
As a result, enrolment rates for primary school topped 90 per cent in 2004 and the gender gap decreased from 8 per cent in 2000 to less than 3 per cent in 2004. But more needs to be done to keep children, especially girls, in school beyond Grade 6.
“Poverty is the main reason that keeps girls out of school in Cambodia,” says Kimsroeung of World Education, “but we also need to overcome other obstacles. Including the traditional perception that girls don’t need higher education beyond Grade 6 or 9.”