A Reflection on the State of Education in Rural Cambodia Today

Joining us on the blog today is our guest contributor, Emily Maiorino. Emily has been volunteering at Oaktree for 12 months as a partnership manager. She has been working on the Girls’ Education Initiative (GEI) which is an education program targeting vulnerable and marginalised youth in rural Cambodia. Her role has been providing program support to their implementing partner organisation in Cambodia. She is also currently studying a Master’s of International Development at RMIT, due to finish in June 2018. Today, she draws from her own personal experience to share some insightful reflections on the state of education in rural Cambodia.

Basic education is a fundamental human right but, although the Cambodian Constitution guarantees education to every Cambodian child, a considerable gap remains between rhetoric and reality. Significant barriers to accessing quality education still exist across the country, particularly for rural youth, girls and ethnic minority groups. As part of my research working on a girls education project over the past year, I have gained insight into the current problems existing within the Cambodian education system.

1. Cambodian classroom

The issues facing rural youth

Despite the fact that 80% of Cambodia’s population live in rural environments, schools in rural districts face inadequate facilities, lack of resources, poor governance and higher dropout rates than their urban counterparts. Indigenous ethnic groups and diverse Austroasiatic dialects also pose challenges and barriers to rural education.

The proportion of the country estimated to be under 30 varies from more conservative estimates of 59% to as high as 65.3%. The rising number of young Cambodians entering the workforce is creating a pattern of national and international employment migration. Studies have named Kampong Cham as the second major sending area for youths searching for employment. 60% are female.

Kampong Cham and Tbong Khmum provinces are the most densely populated region of the country, even surpassing the capital, Phnom Penh. The Mekong River divides the Kampong Cham and Tbong Khmum provinces, creating a rich floodplain for agricultural practices. The region continues to be well known for rubber, cassava and tobacco plantations, which engage a significant amount of child and youth labour. Factories owned by foreign investors are penetrating the region and employing thousands of young women and men. Through my own qualitative data collection, I identified that a direct correlation exists between the emergence of new factories within close proximity to rural communities, and increased secondary school dropout rates.

The imminent need for stable financial security drives youth -particularly women and girls- out of education and into employment. Gender roles are firmly structured and historically, women have seldom been associated with success in education or business. Hierarchical and patronage roles are also embedded deeply within Cambodian culture which limits the female role models available for inspiration. Young women and girls often leave formal education to work in the domestic sphere or seek employment to generate income for their family. The critical period for girls is lower secondary school (grades 7-9) when the majority of dropouts occur. In many cases, the increased employment opportunities and paychecks that stem from further education do not appear to be a payoff that is justified by the associated costs of school.

2. Cambodia Krochmar and Chumnik Student Interaction

Rebuilding education

Cambodia is in the process of rebuilding its education system after its collapse under the Khmer Rouge. Over the 15 years, education campaigns and policy reforms have promoted the value and importance of education as a national priority (see the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) website regarding education for policies, strategies, legislations, and statistics). Through the commitment of MoEYS and interventions from international agencies, an attitudinal shift is occurring at a national scale.

Presently, around 97% of children are enrolled in primary school, with gender parity achieved for boys and girls. This initial step focussed largely on the expansion of access to education and increasing enrollment rates. Lack of quality education, however, remains the crucial issue and has resulted in significant numbers of children repeating grades or failing to complete even primary education. Low literacy and numeracy levels in secondary school are some of the consequences of low-quality education. The current agenda remains strongly focussed on quality education, teacher training, capacity building, gender and overall equality.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and accompanying international pressures drove a sense of urgency in regards to education reform. Cambodia joined UNESCO’s Education For All (EFA) program in 2003, which kickstarted the next decade of strategic planning. Partnerships between MOEYS and international agencies that formed during this time have worked to combat systemic issues and cultural norms. A long list of programs, policies, research initiatives, action plans, monitoring reports, and goals have been the product of the last 15 years of work in education.

3. Cambodian students writing

Where do we go from here?

The disparities that still exist in the Cambodian education system are affecting the most vulnerable and marginalised groups of its society. The barriers and challenges are particularly ubiquitous for rural youth and girls. Nonetheless, Cambodia’s education system is in a racing upwards trajectory. Through international NGOs, foreign aid, partnerships between states and institutions and rising local support, quality education is high on the national agenda.

“To build a quality higher education system that develops human resource with excellent knowledge, skills and moral values in order to work and live within the era of globalization and knowledge-based society” – MOEYS’ 2030 vision for higher education

MOEYS’ vision reflects the national desire for Cambodia to match ASEAN’s economic growth and prosperity. There’s still a long way to go to in terms of achieving equitable access to quality education for all, but I do think strides are being taken in the right direction. The education system will be in the spotlight over the coming decades and my hope is that it remains a national priority. While a future independence from international aid would be ideal, at present, multilateral efforts are displaying encouraging results for young Cambodians aiming to fulfill their right to education.




ASEAN. (2013). State of Education Report.

UNESCO. (2015). Education for All National Review.

UNICEF. (2015). Annual Report Cambodia.



Be the change you want to see?


On the 16th of December 2012, a girl was gang raped and brutally assaulted by six men on a moving bus. The brutal incident took place late at night when the girl was returning from a film show along with her male friend. The girl was assaulted, her male friend beaten ruthlessly, and they were thrown out of the bus afterwards. They were admitted to Safdarjung hospital in New Delhi where the girl battled for her life for days. She succumbed to her injuries and passed away on the 29th of December 2012. (source: The Hindu)

As the news of the assault spread, there was an outburst of long held anger amongst people for the lack of security of women in the city. People in large numbers came out to protest on the roads of New Delhi.

Born and raised in Delhi, I love this city but I am also well aware of this deep rooted, ever-present threat the city poses to the security of women. In fact, not just this city, but each and every part of India. Yes, this is the country I grew up in, however I have had my moments of anger and rage in past over such incidents but as the details of this assault unravelled I was shaken up to the core. Like many others I started looking for immediate solutions to the problem of violence against women. I became part of a growing mentality which demanded lynching of men and cutting them in pieces. To give voice to my growing disappointment with the situation I along with a thousand others marched to protest at Raisina Hill against the heinous crime that has been committed and to demand security for women.

It was the first time I had witnessed a protest of this magnitude where people gathered in such a large number to demand justice. The energy and the emotion which brought people together at Raisina hill was worth seeing. People gathered from various parts of Delhi and from National Capital Region demanding various things. There were some who demanded the death penalty for the accused, several others demanding stricter laws for rape, and many demanded greater security and freedom for women on Delhi roads. They wanted freedom from eyes of men continuously singling out women, freedom from violence the women faced within the four walls of their own home, freedom from everyday teasing and harassment. There were many who came to the protest just to be a part of the growing resentment with no demands or agenda, and there were those who thought disrupting the public and damaging property would somehow lead to a solution. For this particular group, this protest became a tool to voice their buried demands which were not latent anymore. People were tear gassed, water cannoned, and Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) (which empowers a magistrate to prohibit an assembly of more than five people in an area) was slapped against the protestors. People were raising their collective voices and I wish the government would have heard them peacefully at that point. Though I do I also agree that the unruly protesters and the anti-social elements in the crowd made the protest take an ugly form.


It was heartening to see the mass support for the girl and the anger against what had happened. But as I looked around at the men during the protests I developed serious doubts about the protest bringing real results. It made me realize that bringing another law or another short term action will not end this in any way. Laws against rape have been there for many decades but they have not been able to arrest the rising level of violence against women. These protests I felt would lead to more piecemeal institutional mechanisms and fail to address the problem which is so deeply rooted in society.

The protesters criticised the government authorities for their negligence and inaction in the area of security of women and they expected immediate action. This is what everyone was seeking. But we were asking the patriarchal institutions to solve a societal problem for us. We were asking them to change the mindset of the society. We were pointing to those institutions as if rape was just a criminal offence but it wasn’t. It is our problem and we constitute the problem.

This protest raised various questions in my mind regarding women and their position in our society, and it lead me to look for answers outside of the protest. The questions and their answers related to changing the values young boys are taught in our society. These values related to preference for a male child, and the values instilled in the majority of men who were a part of the protests. I questioned if they would be going home and continue to abuse their wives at home for perceived wrongs or slights, or simply because they can. Most importantly I realised that these protests were still propagating among the majority the value of protecting the honour of the society which resides in the women and not the women. By many the victim’s body still remained the sight of honour and people were enraged to protect this honour. As I took the journey back home and as I go on as a student studying gender relations, I wish to be a part of a change where we confront our society for shaming women and revisiting various values in order to build up a society where women can live fearlessly with respect.

MIDP student


+61 410 937 347

The lived realities of gender inequality

Body Form Redfit
Bodyform RED.FIT Campaign

According to the Monash Gender and Medicine website, Gender describes the characteristics that a society or culture delineates as masculine or feminine. However, today there is a call for actions that challenge this traditional gender bifurcation and the polarisation into masculine and feminine.

With three older brothers and a headstrong mother, my understanding of my femininity was a beautiful mash up of floral dresses and boys hand-me downs. I was told to speak up rather than criticised for being bossy. I was a sports scholar and beat the boys at chin-up competitions, I was a music scholar and mastered the cello with delicacy and passion. My education never suggested that my boobs would be a hindrance to my success nor that having a womb would limit my career choices. The reality of ‘real world’ was a slap in the face!

My inevitable, charming, coming-of-age-whilst-raging, feminist phase coincided beautifully with the year I was an Officer Cadet in the Royal Air Force at University. My occasional drunken ramble about the importance of women at the top to influence bottom-up equality grew tiresome for my uninterested contemporaries. I seethed with rage but also embarrassment when the new Senior Student of my Squadron asked all the women in the room to return to the kitchen at our annual dinner. The room erupted into laughter, sidelong looks cast in my direction. I was visibly frothing at the mouth but powerless to react in the face of such collective mirth.

The experiences are endless, everyone has their story to tell of perpetual and insidious inequality, some more severe than others. There are moments of optimism however, this weekend I watched a new sanitary towel advert from the UK that literally brought me to tears. They were tears of triumph, a shiver ran down my spine and I boldly shared it on my Facebook feed (only momentarily concerned about offending someone somewhere) with a “F*** YES”. Here was a small action by two big companies that was challenging what it meant to be ‘feminine’ in my culture.

I could not quite believe what I was seeing; women, frigging bad-ass physically active women. Unapologetic for their physical power, their disinterest in the need to be ‘pretty’ palpable in their ambivalence towards the imperfections their activities slashed across their bodies. Blood, red, hot, oozing from elbows, knees, foreheads, noses, mouths, toes…and they don’t give a s*** because blood is a regular part of a woman’s life.

The tagline for Bodyform’s new advert? “No blood should hold us back”. It’s a powerful move, it’s a strong statement, it’s an acceptance of a woman’s lived experience into the mainstream of UK society. Its women saying, we bleed and we’ll be damned if that’s going to make a difference anymore.

Would it traditionally be considered unladylike to discuss this sort of thing in public, hell yes. Do I believe it is possible to be ladylike and discuss such things, absolutely. Could Bodyform shift this refreshing and empowering campaign to the next level with an initiative that supplied subsidised sanitary products to displaced women across the globe, well yes.

Since being asked to write on Gender, every day produced something new and wonderful, or frustrating and harrowing, as food for thought. From the ‘small issues’ produced by everyday sexism that Western women face on a daily basis, to the experiences of marginalised communities in less stable states, we can see that gender inequality is an issue for both the developed and developing nations as it impacts everyone.

There was the petition started in the UK demanding dress codes are reformed for women at work. There are the grand debates surrounding Brexit and how women will have the deciding vote. Amber Heard’s reputation has been dragged through the dirt for trying to escape a violent relationship, one that no one else in the entire world outside of that courtroom should possibly imagine they have the right to comment on. All the while refugees are disappearing into the Mediterranean and Fortress Europe continues to drag its feet on a solution to the refugee crisis.

And then there was Angelina Jolie, the Hollywood star out to change the lived experience of displaced peoples as UN Special Envoy. Newly appointed as a visiting professor in practice for the London School of Economics recently announced MSc of Women (note women, not gender), Peacekeeping and Security. There were mixed reviews for this revelation, the most prominent question being “is she really qualified to teach at a post-graduate level?”

There was however one voice that shone out to me, that of Aljazeera correspondent, Bina Shah that focussed on the important issue here. She takes a practical approach to this news and appeals us to steer our attention to the MSc itself, what it’s really teaching and what a graduate will be able to do with it.

These are similar questions I asked of the various Masters programs I was considering. I landed on Monash for its emphasis on ‘practical experience’ and the promise of career-readiness, graduating with more than just the ability to eloquently debate whether we should be bothering at all.

A debate made even more frustrating when one reads statements such as this gem from Kofi Annan: “gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition, promoting sustainable development and building good governance”. Good luck with dissecting that revelation for a specific proposal, William Easterly certainly died a little inside hearing that one.

Having spent a semester now being asked to challenge existing development trajectories (such as the above) and human rights institutions – to understand how we as the new generation of development workers should be expected to move forward – I find Shah’s closing comments, at once striking for their clarity and harsh in their reality:

“If you want to stop women being raped in times of war, you’ll need a different kind of degree: the one that teaches us how to stop war and how to stop women being used as its spoils. And I’m not sure there’s a university course out there that teaches that as yet”

Gender remains to be one of the most pressing issues of our time, and a hurdle in achieving equality. Regardless of the academic research to understand inequality, how can a university course teach how to mitigate, and overturn the lived realities of gender inequality? Will there ever be a university course that does? Can you teach students how to address such global pressing issues safe in their lecture theatre? Or is there no real substitute for hands-on, in-the-field experience?

*All links are provided for the reader’s further exploration of referenced topics and do not necessarily reflect the author’s own opinions.

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