Monday, March 4, 2013

The long march: children go to school

Pan In (centre) at home with her mother and siblings
© UNICEF Cambodia/2013/Andy Brown
Ten-year-old Pan In is attending school for the first time this year, following a local school enrolment campaign. She wears a clean white-and-blue uniform. “I walk to school every day with my brother,” she says. “It’s a long way and we don’t always get there on time, but my teacher is nice and she doesn’t blame me. I like learning literacy but not maths. Between classes, I water the flowers in the school yard.”

Soksan Primary School is in Pouk district, Siem Reap province. It consists of two long single-story buildings, which are clean and freshly painted. Outside, there are latrine blocks with colourful murals, a water pump and well-tended flowerbeds. In one classroom, young girls sing a handwashing song. “We will always be clean and wash our hands before eating,” they chant in Khmer language. “We do not play with dirt because it will make us ill.”

Pan In is a shy girl and older than the other children in her class. Sometimes she finds it difficult to fit in. “Once the children in Grade 2 stole my pencil and ruler,” she says. “I told my teacher and she made them give them back. They don’t steal from me anymore. The teacher also helps my Mum by giving us her daughter’s old clothes and books.”

Of her two younger brothers, six-year-old Pev still doesn’t attend school because he has a bad leg and can’t manage the walk. But seven-year-old Pean goes to the same school. “I like learning the alphabet,” he says.

Children sing a handwashing song in a classroom at Soksan Primary School
© UNICEF Cambodia/2013/Andy Brown
School enrolment campaign

Last September, Soksan School took part in a campaign organised by the District Office of Education, to encourage parents of out-of-school children to enrol them for the new school year. It was targeted at three districts with the lowest enrolment rates, and supported by UNICEF and the Ministry of Education.

National enrolment campaigns are conducted at the beginning of every school year via mass media, including radio and TV. This local enrolment campaign was complementary and conducted at the district level to reach communes and villages with low enrolment rates.

“We organised a ‘long march’ with hundreds of teachers, parents and students from each school,” Ke Vanny, Director of Education for Pouk District, says. “Some went on foot, others by bicycle or open-back truck. They had banners, leaflets and a loudspeaker. As we went through the villages, students would broadcast messages about free enrolment and the value of education.”

Vanny says that UNICEF’s support was essential to the success of the campaign. “The funding allowed us to hire the trucks, buy water for the marchers, and produce the banners,” he continues. “Last year the overall enrolment rate for the district was 83 per cent. This year, it’s up to 92 per cent.”

School children take part in a ‘long march’ in Pouk district
© Pouk District DOE/2012/Chek Setha
Soksan School mobilised over 400 people to take part in their march. “It was the first time we had had such a big march,” School Director Noek Vuthay comments. “In the past we put up posters but many parents are illiterate and couldn’t read them. I was excited and happy to go on the long march. We marched for four hours. The children really enjoyed it and wanted to keep on going.”

The main challenge of the campaign was to change the attitudes of local parents. “Some of them thought education was not important,” Vuthay continues. “Poor families said they needed their children to work in the fields. We told them that education is an investment for their children’s future. In the long run, it will help them earn more money.”

A better tomorrow

Pan In’s mother, 36-year-old Saing Al, decided to send her children to school after seeing the long march. “I am illiterate but I want my children to be able to read and write like other children,” she says. “Before the march I didn’t even know when the school year started. Now I feel happy to see my children learning. We are a poor family and it is sometimes hard to find money for them to buy snacks at school, but I don’t want them to drop out. I want them to finish Grade 7 at least.”

Saing Al has had a difficult time bringing up four children on her own. She divorced her husband because of domestic violence and now lives with the children’s grandfather. “We produce 300kgs of rice a year,” she says. “It’s enough for the family to eat, but not for us to sell. We also keep ducks and plant other vegetables to sell at the market. We earn around $25 a year.”

Pan In carries her baby sister on the family farm
© UNICEF Cambodia/2013/Andy Brown
The family lives in a village down an earth track a few kilometres from the school. It is dry season and the yellow fields merge with a line of green trees on the flat horizon. Villagers drive motorbikes loaded with crates and baskets, or sell chickens, fruit and bottles of petrol along the roadside. It is early morning and the fields are full of florescent lamps on wires, set up with plastic sheets above trays of water. These are used to catch crickets at night, which are attracted to the light but fall into the water and drown. In the morning, they are fried and eaten.

Pan In’s home is a wooden and thatched building, shaded under tall trees and built on stilts beside a duck pen and a few fields. There is a toilet but no electricity. At school, she was shy and quiet, but at home she relaxes and becomes more playful, laughing frequently. She skims stones across a pond in the field and plays with her siblings.

“When I’m at home, I help my family in the fields and look after my younger siblings,” Pan In says, balancing her baby sister on her hip. “In the evenings I help my mum around the house and do my homework. I like play hide and seek around the rice fields with my brothers and sisters. When I grow up, I want to be a housewife.”

The school enrolment campaign has been a big success for Soksan School. In the previous year they had a single Grade 1 class with 30 children. They now have two classes with 60 children, including Pan In and Pean. The District Office of Education is keen to build on this success. “We will definitely do the march again next year.” Ke Vanny says. “I want to make it bigger and involve more schools. We’ll find a way to fund it. It must be done.”

Find out more about UNICEF’s work in Cambodia »

The author
Andy Brown is Digital Communications Consultant for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific


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