Friday, May 12, 2017

Overcoming the odds to stay in school

By Patricia Chourio

17-year-old Mor Taly in her favourite place, Koh Dong High School’s library;
©UNICEF Cambodia/2016/ Chourio

May, 2017, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia: Shy, quiet and a little awkward, at first glance Mor Taly looks like a typical teenager. The slender 17 year old wears a white button-down and dark blue skirt, the standard Cambodian school uniform, as she leafs through books at Koh Dong High School’s library, where she attends eighth grade.

But a closer look at Taly’s day-to-day routine reveals a more complex reality; this is a young woman whose life has been full of struggle. School is the least of her worries. Four years ago, Taly’s mother passed away, leaving the girl and her six other siblings in the care of her father and grandmother. Her father remarried shortly after and moved away to work a cassava field, taking two of Taly’s brothers with him. He now visits just a few times a year and is unable to provide any financial support to the family. Her two older sisters married and moved to another village and one brother became a monk. Taly stayed behind with her younger sister, grandmother and an aunt, taking on the role of caregiver in the small, remote village where they live, Kokdong Thmey, which around 60 kilometers from the provincial capital in Siem Reap province.

The teenager’s day begins at 4am, when she rises from her wooden bed, which has neither mattress nor sheets. Every morning, she reaches for an English book, stealing a few moments to practice her language skills while her younger sister and grandmother sleep in the bed next to her. She then cooks breakfast, does laundry and helps her grandmother tidy up.

Taly eats twice a day, at 7am and at 5pm. Her meals simply consist of plain rice and sometimes fish, if the family can afford it. Her younger sister receives 50 kilos of rice and 4.55kg of oil every five months from the World Food Programme, which helps the women get by.

One pot of rice twice a day feeds a family of three in Taly’s household;
©UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Patricia Chourio

Her house doesn’t have proper plumbing and the family relies on well water, which is not very clean. Every few days, Taly and her sister go the forest to chop wood for cooking.
Yet in the midst of all this adversity, Taly manages to get herself to school, rarely missing a day.

“I didn’t enrol in Grade 1 until I was 11 years old,” Taly explains. “My education was frequently interrupted due to the sickness of my mum. My dreams for a better life seemed hopeless.”

Taly enjoys reading English and math books during her spare time at home;
©UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Patricia Chourio

Enrolling in school late and infrequent attendance is an all-too common story for vulnerable Cambodians, especially those in rural areas. Now, Taly is 17 and in the eighth grade, a few years behind the grade-appropriate age of 13 or 14.

Yet despite her late start, the bright girl has risen to the top of her class. Demonstrating quiet focus and commitment, she is now a star pupil.

“Luckily, I have been motivated by my grandmother and teachers to stay in school,” she says.

Her grandmother receives limited financial help from her daughters but manages to give Taly and her sister an allowance of 500 riels (about US$0.17) a day. Taly, being the ambitious and clever girl she is, saves this money to pay for private English lessons. She attends a weekly hour-long class in the village, which costs her US$4 a month.

Last year, Taly applied for a scholarship supported by Cambodia’s Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, a programme aimed to assist children from poor families with school costs. UNICEF has worked with the Government to support this equity-driven initiative, advocating for increased national budget to help vulnerable students manage the financial costs of school.

Taly and her school director Sok Sipha at Koh Dong High School; 
©UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Patricia Chourio

In academic year 2016-2017, the Government supported 111,482 students (62,188 girl) like Taly. She was granted US$60 for this school year. “With the scholarship I got, I bought writing books, pens, clothing and food. It is a great help to support my living and education.”
She also uses the scholarship to help pay for English lessons; she knows that learning another language will help her career in the future and allow her to support her family. She hopes to become a tour guide or a teacher.

Taly’s life is improving but her challenges remain--her grandmother is now ill and wants Taly to stop going to school and help at home. “The scholarship is a big help for me, and I am committed to staying in school,” she says.

Sok Sipha is school director at Koh Dong High School. “The scholarship programme is a great incentive for parents to keep their children in school,” he says. “Taly is a star student, despite her difficult situation. The scholarship programme has provided opportunities to other girls in the village facing similar vulnerabilities.”

Sipha hopes more scholarships will become available and at an increased amount in the future. He believes students would benefit greatly if the scholarship amount were raised from US$60 a year to $90 per school year. “Some families can’t afford to send their children to school and they would rather have them work with them in the fields,” he says. “This assistance helps offset the families’ financial challenges and keeps the children in school.”
For girls like Taly, this state support is vital to her future.

Taly is already paying her small victories forward in the community; along with her school and home duties, she still manages to teach English to children in her village.

“After school, I knock on my neighbours’ doors and invite the children to my house for English lessons,” she says. Sometimes her ‘classes’ are as large as five or six and last up to an hour. No matter how many children show up, she always takes time to lead them through lessons in a book borrowed from a friend.

“I want my community to learn the concept of collaboration, we should learn to help each other.”

Taly is working hard to build a brighter future, not just for herself but for her family and her community. Her resilience is proof that when there’s a will, there’s a way.

Taly and her sister Mao; ©UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Patricia Chourio

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