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Friday, April 13, 2007

Child-friendly schools support girls’ education in Cambodia

By Ticiana Maloney

KAMPONG THOM, Cambodia, 12 April 2007 – Taxi, 14, lives in a rural community of Kampong Thom Province, central Cambodia. It is the dry season and dust chokes the air in her poverty-stricken village, as in most of rural Cambodia. Small palm-roofed bamboo huts line the dirt road that leads to Sankor School, where Taxi attends sixth grade.

In March, with a few months left to complete her primary education, Taxi dropped out of school. “I was going to drop out because I am poor and I needed to work,” she says.

In many poor communities, girls tend to drop out when they reach the upper grades of primary school. “Poverty is the main reason why girls drop out,” says Huoy Sophea, a girl counsellor at Sankor school. “They often leave to work in the garment factories around [the capital], Phnom Penh.”

Reaching out to girls

“In grade 1 there is no gender gap,” says Director Sou Kim Try of the Kampong Thom Provincial Office of Education. “But when they reach grade 7, the percentage of girls is much lower than boys.”

The Government of Cambodia is committed to keeping children in school and, with UNICEF support, has been implementing a Child-Friendly Schools Initiative in 6 of the country’s 24 provinces. The aim is to increase equitable access to school and the quality of basic education.

Gender responsiveness is one of the key components. Through such activities as community research on gender and counselling for girls – known as ‘girl counselling’ – child-friendly schools reach out to girls who are at risk of dropping out, identifying gender barriers to education and increasing awareness about gender equality.

In Kampong Thom, girl counselling has been implemented in a majority of child-friendly schools. It targets girls in grades 5 and 6 who are at risk or have already left school. Preliminary results show that most girls have returned to school after receiving counselling.

Back to school

Taxi is one of the girls who benefited from the initiative. Three days after leaving, she was back in school. The Sankor school counsellor visited Taxi and her family at home after finding out she had dropped out. “The teacher persuaded me to come back to school. She said that education is important for me,” recalls Taxi.

Girl counselling works in a similar way in other child-friendly schools in Cambodia. Teachers inform girl counsellors, who are usually female teachers or mother representatives, when students have been absent for more than three days or have dropped out. The counsellors visit the at-risk student’s home to discuss the problem and to identify underlying causes for dropping out. Appropriate solutions are agreed upon by both students and parents.

Although many girls return to school, there are some who do not return or who drop out again. And while poverty is the main reason children – especially girls – drop out of school, there is also a traditional perception that education is not important for girls. Parents often feel that education has little value for their children, since economic opportunities are limited once they complete school.

“There is a lack of role models,” says UNICEF Education Officer Kerstin Kalstrom. “The girls and their parents see very few people who have better jobs thanks to their education, particularly in rural areas.”

Comprehensive approach

Cambodia has gone a long way towards rebuilding its education system after the abolition of schools during the Khmer Rouge regime.

New schools have been built, hundreds of teachers have been trained and enrolment has been increasing steadily in recent years. But according to data from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, the country hasn’t achieved universal primary education, and completion rates remain low, especially for girls.

At the secondary level, participation is low and the gender gap particularly wide, with only about 30 per cent of boys and 10 per cent of girls of secondary school-age enrolled.

UNICEF is working with the government to improve education outcomes, change perceptions and help increase opportunities for children. The Child-Friendly Schools Initiative adopts a comprehensive approach that can accelerate progress towards education for all.
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