Thursday, June 14, 2018

Scholarship programme aims to reduce barriers to finishing secondary school

By Elizabeth Fisher

Sokha Dian at his home in Sen Monorom, Mondulkiri Province,
where he lives with his parents and siblings
© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Elizabeth Fisher

Mondulkiri, Cambodia, June 2018 – Sohka Dian is a grade 12 student in Sen Monorom, Mondulkiri Province. He is a shy and kind boy with a warm smile who, despite significant hardship, is completing his education.

Dian is of the Phnong ethnic minority group, which also means that he speaks Phnong at home rather than Khmer, the language of instruction at Cambodian schools. He receives a UNICEF scholarship, implemented in close collaboration with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS), and with funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and Starwood Hotels and Resorts through UNICEF Australia. The scholarship, which comes through MoEYS scholarship disbursement, provides much needed funds to ease the burden of attending school and helps to level the playing field so that more students are able to successfully continue and complete their educations.

I met Dian while accompanying a research team during their review of the scholarship programme on behalf of UNICEF. We had met Dian’s family earlier that morning when we came to interview them about the scholarship and its effects on the family and on Dian’s education. We decided to return to his home in the early evening so that I could talk to him some more.

While we were waiting for him to return home from school, a member of the team started chatting with a neighbour, who as it turned out was an old acquaintance. I joined the conversation and asked the neighbour about Dian. She told us that he is bright, intelligent and helpful, traits that were instantly obvious to us when we spoke with him. To demonstrate this, she explained that he had helped her build her house and will sometimes do errands for her to earn extra money.

However, Dian faces many challenges in his life, including poverty and difficulties within his family. The fact that he has made this commitment to finish his education despite the obstacles shows his incredible drive and perseverance. Dian has high aspirations in life and wants to go to Phnom Penh to study law, but without significant scholarships, this will be impossible for him.

Dian’s story is not unique. Throughout Cambodia’s north-eastern provinces, students from ethnic minority communities face increased hardship, especially when it comes to finishing upper secondary school. This group has the highest dropout rate in the country due to many factors that make access to education and retention in school difficult. These hurdles include language barriers, a lack of qualified teachers who speak the same indigenous language, early marriage, schools that are too far away, and the high opportunity cost of education.

In an effort to improve access to education among the most disadvantaged, one of UNICEF’s education initiatives in Cambodia is a scholarship programme for grade-11 and grade-12 students from ethnic minority communities in the north-east. It provides a scholarship twice a year, totaling US$ 150, to offset the costs of getting an education in an effort to reduce dropout rates and to make higher education a possibility.

Additionally, there are hopes that some of these students will become qualified multi-lingual education (MLE) teachers in their communities. More MLE teachers would reduce the impacts of the language barrier on students from ethnic minority backgrounds. By increasing the number of bilingual teachers working in schools, these students will be able to transition to using Khmer in school more easily and will thus be able to perform better throughout their education.

During the review, we met many wonderful young people with ambitions of becoming teachers, police officers, and doctors, among others. This scholarship is an effective means of providing much needed money to pay for school supplies and other school-related expenses. Some students we spoke with use it to pay for expenses such as school uniforms or textbooks, while others may use it to buy the bike they will ride to school every day. The students are able to use the cash they receive to pay for the school expenses that their families cannot cover on their own.

Sang Sinhang at her school in rural Ratanakiri
© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Elizabeth Fisher

One of the most touching interactions we had during the mission was with Sang Sinhang at her school in rural Ratanakiri province. She is a charming grade-11 student of the Brou ethnic minority community, with a passion for school and education. Her mother revealed to us that before the scholarship, when she did not have enough money to buy fuel for the motorbike, Sinhang would cry and become very upset because she had to miss school. So, her mother would borrow fuel from the neighbor to help her daughter get to school that day. Her dedication and love of school really shows how important this scholarship is because it allows committed students like Sinhang to pursue their education.

Sang Sinhang and her mother outside her school in rural Ratanakiri© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Elizabeth Fisher

For Sinhang, like Dian, the scholarship money is essential for paying these costs. Like many Cambodian parents, Sinhang’s mother makes huge sacrifices to send her daughter to school. Her husband, who left the family, does not think that girls need to be educated and will not provide any money to help send his kids to school. Luckily, Sinhang’s mother disagrees and does everything she can to ensure that her daughter and two younger sons can get an education. She wants Sinhang to be a teacher so that she can teach the next generation.

Through interviews and focus group discussions, we saw that while the US$ 150, in many cases, does not cover all costs for students, it is an essential resource in helping ensure young people can continue to study and go on to realize their full potential.

The findings from this review, including the stories of Dian, Sinhang and their families, will be important in providing further advocacy in order for Cambodia to continue to work toward realizing the fourth Sustainable Development Goal: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

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