How Cambodians came together to protect education in 2020

As a challenging school year ends, we celebrate the Cambodians who worked heroically to protect children's education no matter the obstacles.

Seng Daravatey and Jaime Gill
©UNICEF Cambodia/2020/Antoine Raab
UNICEF Cambodia/2020/Antoine Raab
11 December 2020

Kampot, September - “It’s been a difficult year for students and everyone working in education,” Tak Hab told us back in September as schools re-opened for the first time since COVID-19 reached Cambodia. He would certainly know, as Director of Education for Kampot Province, responsible for 700 schools. “The most difficult thing was speaking to students who really cared about their education and were due to take their exams. Some were upset and would ask me, ‘will I even be able to finish school?’ I reassured them that, yes, we in the Government were completely committed to their education. But it was a hard time.”

©UNICEF Cambodia/2020/Antoine Raab
UNICEF Cambodia/2020/Antoine Raab
Mr. Tak Hab, Education Director for Kampot Province, discusses the re-opening of schools with Daravatey Seng of UNICEF Cambodia.

The rest of the school year proved equally challenging, with virus outbreaks necessitating two further temporary closures. Nonetheless, grade 9 exams have now been successfully administrated and the school year officially completed at the end of November, with only grade 12 exams remaining to be taken at the start of 2021. This achievement was only possible because of the heroic efforts by teachers, community leaders and parents to keep education alive for Cambodia’s 3.2 million students during the school closures. They helped children use distance learning materials produced by the Royal Government of Cambodia, UNICEF, and other education sector partners, and encouraged students to stay engaged with their education.

“Maintaining inclusive and high quality education services to Cambodia’s children in 2020 has been a truly united and quite extraordinary effort,” said Katheryn Bennett, UNICEF Cambodia’s Chief of Education. “Individual Cambodians, local and national government authorities, international agencies, grassroots organisations, and schools have all collaborated and made every effort to ensure all children could learn, even during times when schools were closed.”

A great example has been the lengths teachers went to to ensure that children in remote areas without Internet access didn’t lose out on education, by taking paper-based assignments to their door, no matter what obstacles lay in their way. Cherm Bunny, a teacher at Krang Snay Primary School in Kampot, is a prime example. “The biggest problem was getting to the houses of distant students,” she remembered. “The roads could be very difficult, and, worst of all, there were sometimes dogs. I’m very frightened of dogs, so then I would have to run to their door. Still, I would always do it because I was even more afraid my students would fall behind in their studies and maybe drop out. I was so sad because two of my students did drop out, one went to work on a farm to help with his family’s bad financial situation, and another moved away to Koh Kong.”

©UNICEF Cambodia/2020/Antoine Raab
UNICEF Cambodia/2020/Antoine Raab
30 September 2020, Krang Snay Primary School in Chhouk District, Kampot Province. Portrait of teacher Cherm Bunny

Community leaders and parents were essential participants in this battle to keep education alive. Oum Sophal is both, as one of the parents at Krang Snay, as well as the village chief. “Even when the schools were closed, I managed to make sure my children continued to study every day,” he explained, giving credit to the Government and UNICEF for the learning programmes broadcast on TV during the school closures. “But I was very glad when the schools re-opened at last. I can see for myself that children just don’t concentrate so well on lessons when they are at home. I really want all the children in this community to learn, because we only get one chance to study. That’s what gives us choices for the rest of our lives.”

Most children also agree that in-school learning is better. Cheuon Chanmot, a grade 5 student at Krang Snay, said, “I’m so happy to be back in a classroom to study. When I was studying at home, I missed my teacher's jokes and the chance to discuss things during the lesson.” Chanmot’s father is a construction worker, and neither he nor Chanmot’s mother finished high school, which is one of the reasons they encourage her to study no matter what disruptions she had to deal with. Çhanmot told us, “In school, we get teachers to guide us, and can work towards a better job and a better future. If you don’t have a good education, you won’t have a good future.”

©UNICEF Cambodia/2020/Antoine Raab
UNICEF Cambodia/2020/Antoine Raab
30 September 2020, Krang Snay Primary School in Chhouk District, Kampot Province. Portrait of Chhern ChanMot

Tak Hab agrees. “Education is the only path to a better life,” he says. “I have three daughters, and I have made sure they all study hard and go to university. That’s what will give them the independence I want them to have as women. I don’t want them to depend on anyone else.”

Mr Hab does, however, recognise that some children come from families who are struggling financially and find it more difficult to prioritise education for their children. “I have seen it myself this year. Many kids have disappeared from the school system and are now working. Right now, their families think they need money more than an education and I do understand, but it makes me sad. That’s why I tell all the teachers to try and engage with students who might want to drop out, to go to their homes and try to persuade them to return to school. I want to say to those families, ‘We understand your situation. We care. But schools are here to help you. Invest in your children's education now, so that they can look after themselves and you in the future.’”

Mr. Hab reminds us that the battle to champion education won’t end in 2020 but will continue into next year, particularly for children who have dropped out during this turbulent time. Such children are fortunate to have passionate advocates like Mr. Hab, Mrs. Cherm and Mr. Oum ready to continue the fight on their behalf. 

* Donors included the Government of Japan, the Government of Denmark and the Capacity Development Partnership Fund, which included the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Global Partnership for Education (GPE), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and the European Union (EU)