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Child-friendly schools make a progressive leap in Cambodia

©UNICEF video
Boys and girls study at a child-friendly school in Stung Treng province, Cambodia.

By Jay LaMonica

STUNG TRENG PROVINCE, Cambodia, 25 August 2010 – Long Kan Buthom, 11, performs a traditional Khmer dance with ease. Her radiant smile, expressive hand movements and precise choreography come from long hours of practice.

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Buthom says that her dance teacher is very strict and doesn’t allow the girls to chat during the hand and foot bending exercises that are crucial to the ancient art form.

While Buthom enjoys dance, however, her real passion is drawing. She loves to draw cartoon characters and would like to be a painter or a lawyer when she grows up.

Child leadership

Buthom is a member of the Student Council at Reachea Nukol Primary School in Cambodia’s remote Stung Treng province, which lies in the northeast corner of the country along the border with Laos. While she is just 11 years old, she has an important job in the Student Council: to disseminate key information to the other students.

© UNICEF video
Souk Lek, 6, attends a child-friendly school in Cambodia's remote Stung Treng province.

Every morning, the entire student body assembles outside the school to sing the national anthem and raise the flag – one opportunity for Buthom to perform her work. On one recent morning, she spoke to her fellow students about the need to put trash in new garbage bins all around the school. She also stressed the importance of hand washing after handling trash.

Reachea Nukol has changed dramatically in the six years Buthom has been a student there. Just a few years ago, it became a UNICEF-supported ‘child-friendly’ school.

Voice for students

The UNICEF Child-Friendly Schools Initiative aims to provide an equal opportunity for all children within a safe and nurturing environment. Teachers and caregivers are trained to recognize children’s emotional needs and to encourage them to express themselves without fear. As a result, students find teachers to be more understanding of their needs and interests and are able to approach learning in a positive way.

With a stronger voice, students at Reachea Nukol are also able to help make practical changes that improve their quality of life at school.

“There was no library before,” said Buthom. “We studied individually and there was no group discussion at all. There were not enough materials to use.” She added that the creation of the Student Council has led to better discipline and more leadership among students across the school.

Cambodian primary school students clap during a song.

Gender equality

Every morning Buthom rides her bicycle to Reachea Nukol, where her favorite subjects are social studies and science. After school she takes English classes from her father, who runs a small outdoor school tutoring local children. Her father has impressed upon Buthom the importance of education.

There was a time not too long ago when girls weren’t allowed to attend school in Cambodia. But today all children have an equal opportunity to receive an education.

Buthom says her role model is her grandfather, who was executed by the Khmer Rouge when her father was a little boy. Two of her uncles were also killed because they had attended university. In an attempt to destroy traditional culture, the regime even targeted classical dancers.

Today’s changes also go a long way toward helping Cambodia achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals targets relating to achieving universal primary education and promoting gender equality. The MDGs, a set of internationally recognized targets for reducing poverty worldwide, call for the elimination of gender disparities at all levels of education by the year 2015.

Hope for the future

Since the days of the Khmer Rouge, however, life has improved across the country, and children – both girls and boys alike – can have hope for the future.

“There have been lots of changes in Cambodia,” said Buthom. “Now there are bridges, roads, schools and hospitals. Our government has rebuilt many things that were destroyed.”

Next year, Buthom will be moving up to secondary school. She plans to continue her studies and hopes to develop her passion for drawing. She and her friends will continue to study traditional dance, celebrating the traditional cultural art that is so unique to Cambodia.

Buthom also hopes to one day move to Phnom Penh or another big city to pursue a law degree.


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