Cambodia is a country devastated by the Khmer Rouge. During the Khmer Rouge era in Cambodia, 1.2 million to 1.7 million people were killed. The Khmer Rouge also engaged in campaigns to destroy the educational system. It is estimated that by the end of the Khmer Rouge era, between 75 – 80 percent of Cambodian educators were either killed, died of overwork, or left the country. At least half of the written materials available in the Khmer language were destroyed.
Rebuilding Cambodia’s educational system began in the 1980’s. The process of recreating an educational system was hampered by the low skill level of educators and the lack of facilities; Most of the educated population were gone, classes were taught in shacks made of leaves with dirt floors or outside under the trees. Widespread corruption, favoritism, and nepotism also significantly slowed the development of the educational system. Surveys conducted by the Ministry of Youth and Sport in the year 2000 estimated that 63 percent of the adult population of Cambodia (6.5 million people) were basically illiterate.
While funding for education has improved over the years, the overwhelming problems in Cambodia’s education system remain. The opportunity for education in Cambodia through to 9th grade is extremely limited. There is a disparity in the delivery of education services, including large gaps in education quality between urban and rural schools; In rural areas, teachers are paid as little as 20 dollars per month. Since they cannot live on such wages, they must supplement their income with other jobs, which often cuts into class times. In addition, the teachers must also charge students fees to attend their classes, or offer additional classes (also with fees) outside regular class times. This means that the poorest students are often locked out of classes where the real teaching occurs.
There is also a gender disparity. Women remain marginalised with gender disparities in rates of literacy, education, and employment. 45 percent of Cambodian women are illiterate, 70 percent are functionally illiterate, and only 16 percent of girls are enrolled in lower secondary school (grades 7-9).
The reasons for the gender gap in education are related primarily to two factors: costs, and social attitudes towards gender roles. The social constraints on girls’ education are the prevailing cultural ideals and attitudes of higher male status, capacity and intelligence. These attitudes persist, not only among parents, but also teachers. Girls are expected to carry out domestic chores in the home and are more involved in income-generating activities. Girls are, therefore, withdrawn from schools around puberty, while boys remain at school longer.
By restricting girls’ access to education, their life opportunities and choices are also restricted. A woman’s life is destined for marriage and frequent childbearing, over which she may have little control, and her daughter is also likely to follow the same path. Literacy gives access to information which improves women’s quality of life, and education increases their access to employment and economic opportunities.
Cambodia is a land of beauty and darkness; The beauty is the innocence and joy of the children, the darkness is the poverty and lack of opportunity which results in their exploitation. Child prostitution and trafficking are grave problems in Cambodia. In Phnom Penh, there are an estimated 10,000-15,000 child prostitutes. 31 percent of all prostitutes are 12-17 years old. 50 percent of girl prostitutes were sold by relatives or friends and forced into prostitution. Many of these prostitutes come from rural families lured by brokers offering jobs described as honest and well paid.