At-risk children given chance at lifelong learning

Non-formal education programmes in Sihanoukville are giving children and youth who have never been to school a chance to catch up with their studies

Lloyd Cristyn Elisabeth
(Left) Veasna in the classroom at M’Lop Tapang’s education centre (© M’Lop Tapang/2022/Roth Chanphalkun). (Right) Lunchtime at M’Lop Tapang education centre (© M’Lop Tapang/2022/David Shoemaker).
M’Lop Tapang/2022/Roth Chanphalkun and David Shoemaker
27 June 2022

Sihanoukville, May 2022 – In May, 12-year-old Veasna* and his two younger sisters, aged 10 and six, walked into a classroom for the first time. None of them had ever been to school before. “The night before I came here I was so excited,” said Veasna. “I wished the morning would come soon because I couldn’t wait to go to school. Before, sometimes I would see other kids in their uniforms. I wanted to be like them.”

Veasna and his sisters have spent much of their childhoods on the streets and beaches of Sihanoukville, a coastal city in southwestern Cambodia, where they live together with their single mother and siblings in a small rented room. Needing to support their mother’s meagre income from selling snacks on the beach, they would go out in the early evening to sell flowers to tourists and beg for money, often not returning home until three or four in the morning.

This case is not uncommon in Cambodia. In deprived areas, many parents still struggle to understand the value of education or cannot afford to send their children to school. While more Cambodian children are entering the classroom than ever before – the number of children enrolled in early childhood education has more than doubled since 20071 – barriers to school attendance persist across the country.

Child labour is both a reason why children are missing school and a coping mechanism for families struggling to make ends meet, especially since the pandemic. The most common sources of income include begging, scavenging and working on construction sites. Despite the country’s minimum working age of 15, a Cambodia Labour Force and Child Labour Survey from 2012 found that 19 per cent of children aged between 5 and 17 were economically active, of which 57 per cent were child labourers and 31 per cent were involved in dangerous labour2. More than half of the child labourers were estimated to have never attended school or to have dropped out of school.

As a single mother raising seven children, Sophea* was worried about the impact sending her oldest kids to school would have on the family’s daily earnings. NGO M’Lop Tapang had been in contact with her previously to explain how valuable it would be for her children to get an education, but she was not able to pull them off the streets.

M’Lop Tapang’s non-formal education (NFE) programs give children and youth who have never been to school – or have been out of school for a long time – a chance to catch up with their studies. The goal is to reintegrate them into the local public school system at a grade level suitable for their age. All of the children attending the NFE programme not only learn to read and write, but are also provided with transportation, hot nutritional lunches and snacks, as well as access to free medical care and counselling services.

Seeing that Sophea was struggling, M’Lop Tapang provided them with emergency food, hygiene kits, clothing and medical care. The social workers visited Sophea and the children regularly over several months, building a relationship of trust and explaining how proper education would transform the lives of her children and offer a way out of poverty. She finally agreed when they promised to support her with food supplies every few weeks if she allowed her children to go to school.

Every day, M’Lop Tapang’s team of outreach social workers go around Sihanoukville to meet and follow up with vulnerable and at-risk families. “We often meet families living and working on the streets,” said Samnang Uy, a social worker who handles Veasna’s case. “Many of the children we meet on the streets have never been to school before. We try to get them to come to our NFE programme. We can offer them many services, such as education, food, health care and counselling. There are also fun activities for the children, such as sports and arts classes.” 

The NGO is a member of the Partnership Programme for Protection of Children (3PC), an alliance of 13 NGOs and 40+ community-based organizations coordinated by Friends-International in collaboration with UNICEF and the Cambodian Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSVY). Together they provide support to children and families at risk of or experiencing violence and abuse, living in street conditions, and most recently those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“Child protection risks, including child abuse, are heightened by limited access to quality education,” said UNICEF’s Child Protection Specialist Chivith Rottanak. “UNICEF is supporting partners like M’Lop Tapang to provide vulnerable children access to education as well as to protect them from violence and abuse through strengthening case management systems. M’Lop Tapang social workers also conduct street outreach, targeting children working on the street and referring them to non-formal education and vocational skills training. We are grateful for the ongoing financial support from partners like USAID, the Government of Japan, UNICEF Australia and UNICEF Germany to build Cambodia’s child protection system.” 

The first half of 2022 has seen more than 100 children start attending classes at M’Lop Tapang’s education centre, which hopes to pave the way for Sihanoukville’s most vulnerable to lead long lives of learning in an environment where they can feel safe, happy and healthy. 

“When I got here I was surprised to see so many children playing, jumping rope and playing ball. I didn’t know they did that at school,” said Veasna. “My mother said that she is so happy to see us go to school like other children now. I don’t want to go back to begging or selling flowers. I want to continue to go to school. I always wake up early to make sure I never miss the school bus.” 

* Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved