“We illiterate, it’s like we have blind eyes, and we don’t make any progress like the literates.”
Van La is a rice farmer in Kampong Speu province’s Udong district. Like many Cambodians, she is illiterate. And while she hopes her children will not suffer the same fate, many parents and educational professionals fear that Cambodia’s education system may fail her.
“We face difficulties,” she said as she worked at planting rice seedlings on a recent day. “We illiterate, it’s like we have blind eyes, and we don’t make any progress like the literates.”
Government statistics show that 70 percent of the population is somewhat literate, but development experts say that a poor education environment and other factors are hurting the country’s progress.
Van La said she was determined to send her children to school, so that they might learn to read and write and better their futures, but she could still face an uphill struggle.
Poor parents cannot always afford to send their children to school, where low-salaried teachers often ask for bribes.
“If my family has money, I will study to high levels like others,” said Un Dom, who is 12 and lives in the same district. “But if my parents have no money, I cannot continue my studies in upper classes. I have a poor family. I may not be able to study to the upper classes as others do.”
Some parents, like Van Botum, 34, who lives in Phnom Penh, say that even when they send their children to school, they aren’t learning as well as they should.
“My oldest daughter studies in Grade 6, as normal,” she said. “But my youngest daughter, in Grade 5, can’t read or write at all. She feels bad, ashamed and fearful, and then she doesn’t mind her studies.”
Educators, too, acknowledge the difficulties.
Ros Tith Malay, a teacher at Boeung Trabek primary school, said the worries of parents and children are warranted.
“Teachers have a hard time making a living from the government’s inadequate offers of salary,” she said. “So the teachers have to demand money from students in exchange for their teaching, for fuel and to support their lives.”
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, said such practices damage Cambodia’s human resources and socio-economic development.
“The young have very little knowledge, no skills and no resources,” he said. “So investors hesitate to invest in Cambodia.”
Illiteracy also begets its own problems, said Heng Sreang, a professor at the Royal Phnom Penh University.
“The illiterates cannot walk out of their villages,” he said. “So their lives are facing more poverty.”
Even those few who can read and write have difficulties finding a job, he added.
Santosh Khatri, an education specialist at Unesco in Phnom Penh, said illiteracy is common among the rural poor, those who survive on basic agriculture. Efforts are underway to encourage more reading, he said. “They can improve their livelihoods and improve their agricultural techniques” with literacy.
The government, meanwhile, has “six strategies” in its approach to education, including the promotion of literacy, said Ou Eng, director-general of the Ministry of Education.
“For this reason in both primary and secondary schools, we have a number of works aimed at strengthening education quality and service with equity,” he said.