Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Girls getting ahead: Scholarships bring new opportunity to rural Cambodia

By Rachel McCarthy and Sovannarem Ngoy

Norng Y Thong is one of more than 1,000 students benefitting from 
MoEYS-UNICEF scholarships to ensure she finishes high school; 
© UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Rachel McCarthy

Ratanakiri, Cambodia, January 2018: Norng Y Thong is a 12th grader from a village in Ratanakiri Province, a rural mountainous region along the border with Vietnam and Laos. From the capital, Phnom Penh, it takes eight hours along highways, bumpy dirt roads and endless stretches of rubber trees to reach Norng’s upper secondary school, where 700 students attend.

Teenagers wearing the national school uniform -- white shirts and navy-blue trousers or skirts -- pour through the school gates to begin their day. With books in hand, they giggle and chat noisily as they make their way to class.

Like some of her classmates, 19-year-old Norng is a member of an indigenous community. She is Tampuen, a hill tribe with its own language and culture. High levels of poverty in Cambodia’s northeastern provinces prevent many girls like Norng from attending school, where early employment or early marriage is often prioritized over time spent in classrooms.

But Norng has set her eyes on a different future. She dreams of becoming a teacher after graduating. Financial scholarship support from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport MoEYS) and UNICEF, enabled by generous contributions from Starwood Hotels and Resorts through UNICEF Australia, is helping her realize this goal. This academic year, Norng received two payments of US$150 to cover her basic educational needs and lessen the burden of school on her family.

“I want to become a teacher so that I can teach here, in my community. Our community lacks teachers,” Norng explains. “As a Tampuen, I know this community. I know it better than the teachers sent in from outside. We need local teachers for local communities.”

Scholarship support for students from indigenous communities, like Norng, is helping ensure more local teachers for local schools; as more minority students complete secondary school in Ratanakiri, more are eligible to enter provincial teacher training colleges and become teachers.

In the meantime, sending in teachers is necessary in Ratanakiri, where few children complete secondary school, let alone pursue higher education. According to government data, in the 2016/17 school year, 10,353 students enrolled in Grade 1, but only 944 students completed Grade 9. This dropped even further by the end of high school, with just 401 students graduating last year.

Roughly 22 indigenous groups reside in the northeast of Cambodia. Among them, school completion rates are significantly less than in other parts of the country. Many children encounter significant language and cultural barriers to receiving an education, while also facing serious financial struggles. To address these challenges and enable more adolescents to graduate, UNICEF and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport have thus far provided school scholarships to 1,095 grade 11 and 12 students from indigenous backgrounds.

This investment in children’s futures is yielding results. In Ratanakiri Province, for example, 97 per cent of Starwood scholarship recipients – those in the poorest economic quintiles – have continued their education and are on track to complete high school. By comparison, the national upper secondary dropout rate was 19.4 per cent in 2016/17.

For Norng, scholarship support enables her to continue learning. “It has helped me pay for school materials, like books and clothing. I use the money for food, like rice and canned fish, and transportation. It’s allowed me to focus on learning without the worries of the past.”

“When I think back through my years at school, I think of hardship,” she says. “When I was in Grade 10, my family had no money. I would walk through the forest to find vegetables I could sell. Then I’d walk a long way to the provincial town to sell them. It was all I could do to get by.”

Even with scholarship support, Norng’s daily routine is demanding. “I wake every day at 4 a.m. to prepare food for my relatives. I borrow a motorbike to get to school by 7 a.m. I study in the evenings, and on weekends, I work in the rice fields.”

Norng’s school principal, teachers and community members form the Scholarship Support Committee, which ensures scholarship funds reach students identified as most in need.

“In our school, 58 students from ethnic minority communities received scholarship support in 2017. For them, the money is crucial. But it’s not just about money; it’s also about recognition. When you feel acknowledged for your struggles and supported by your community, you have a reason to come to school,” says the principal.

“We see reductions in absenteeism with the scholarships because we think these students are happier to come to school,” he observes.

When asked what Norng would say to other girls facing similar struggles, she offers these heart-felt thoughts: “Even if you have no money, even if you have empty pockets like me, don’t give up. Go to school. Don’t listen to others who tell you that you are not much, that you’re just a girl.

“I believe we are all capable of so much, if we work hard. Just stay in school and keep learning.”

Norng Y Thong in front of her family’s wooden home. 
Her village is home to 300 Tampuen families; 
© UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Rachel McCarthy

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