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.



The difference I might never have made

Lesvos Gabriel Green

A brother, a mom and a dad, living together in a tight-knit suburban neighbourhood in the south of Norway. That is my youth.

Normal to some extent and in many ways sheltered. We were not much aware of what was going on outside the country borders. When we went on an outing, we might go to the capital or, if we were in a spending mood, we would go on a chartered holiday to Spain or Greece. Sure there were beggars and homeless people in our capital, and sure we saw the kids rummaging around the trash for food scraps in the foreign city back allies, but we did not much care. After all, we were there on a holiday, to have fun. If we entertained the idea of helping, we were told that we could not make a difference: “you cannot help them all”.

War, conflicts and starvation was something we saw on TV and the only time we volunteered to raise money for a humanitarian cause was when we were given time off school to do so. This is my story, but it is not my story in its entirety.

I do believe however it is representative of how many young adults of our generation, from similar backgrounds to mine grow up. Safe, sheltered, having never been exposed to war or real conflict, and never truly without enough food to eat. We never had a “real-world” problem. For one to want to fix a problem, one first has to see the problem. Growing up, it was far too easy not to see the problem.


Caught in the wrong direction

As almost a natural consequence of this sheltered upbringing, I went to study Business and Management at the University of Durham, in the North-East England. I believe this is where it all started. Through modules such as People, Management and Organisation, Integrated Marketing Communication and dissertation writing, I was for the first time taught to really think for myself, to question established truths. It did not matter whether Weber had said it; if you could argue your point, go ahead. It was not until a few months after my graduation that I truly understood the value of this.

Graduating from Durham, I was in essence taught how to make as much money as possible in as short a time as possible. I was therefore quick to say yes once the offer of an internship in Berlin dropped into my email. It did not take long however before the words from my lectures came back to me.

Working in Berlin, I suddenly found myself in a world where I was paid to make people consume as much as possible. It took me 2 months to realise; this is not me. I left Berlin, 3 months before the internship was over.

Arriving back in Oslo, having taken on a large amount of volunteer positions, almost volunteering full time – whilst at the same time starting my own company helping green start-ups become visible online – posts about the refugee challenge on Lesvos started filling my Facebook feed. My good friend, and now colleague Charlotte Vestli and I agreed: “we cannot just sit here and watch this”.

Two weeks after the first Facebook post in the beginning of September 2015, and after having raised roughly $9000 we went to Lesvos. I was supposed to be there for 4 days, returning to Norway for another volunteer obligation. I stayed for nearly 4 months.

Lesvos neal Mcqueen

Making a difference

On the very first boat I helped on 14th September, I was handed, to carry ten meters on slippery rocks to the shore, a 2-year-old girl by her mother. The boat had come in on a beach called Lighthouse beach, or locally known as Limantziki. The waters were reasonably calm but the boat carried 60 terrified, hungry and dehydrated people. The mother trusted me blindly, giving up her dearest treasure to a complete stranger, simply because I was there to help.

Lesvos changed everything: my values, my priorities, my need to make a difference. I no longer saw the everyday, easily ignored beggars on the streets of Oslo, or the kids at the trash bins, I saw boats. Boats and lifejackets. Loaded up at the forested coastline in Turkey, in dinghies made for 20 people, up to 70 people would cross the 8km stretch of the Aegean Sea between North-West Turkey and Lesvos. I was there on the beaches, over those four months, along with thousands of volunteers, to help them ashore.

Since then I took in hundreds more boats, coordinated hundreds of volunteers and witnessed thousands of people arriving on the shores of Lesvos: each with their story and each with their own faith.


The point of no return

On the 14th of September I realised that I could make a difference. That even if I cannot stop the war, save them all or be there for everyone, I can be there for that one person. Making no difference to the world, but to that one person, making the world of difference.

This is why I now find myself studying for a Master of International Development Practice at Monash University. I want to make a difference. Having co-founded Northern Lights Aid where we currently work in several refugee camps on the Greek mainland near the city of Thessaloniki in the north of Greece, I am lucky enough to already contribute to making a difference every day.

I want more. After being heavily involved in the refugee challenge for months I want to start working at the roots of the problem. Boats came to Lesvos for nine months before global society started to act. And when they did, well – while many of the solutions I am sure looked great on paper – they certainly made the situation increasingly more difficult for the people in the boats and the volunteers on the shorelines.

Call it a hairy goal, but I want to change existing policies and the inhumane structures blind to the realities on the ground, so that we never see a refugee challenge like this ever again.

Henrik Larsen