Greetings from Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia or Kingdom of Wonder as it’s known.
I’m here to evaluate the pilot of an out-of-school data collection project -my time to sum up what has been done, and plan a national scale-up. The team at the Ministry of Education led by Secretary of State, Nath Bunroeun, dedicated a lot of time, effort focusing on those Cambodian children who are not –yet- part of the education system.
The project identified children who are out of school, and looked at barriers preventing them going to school. For a year we’ve had many lively debates focusing on the needs of the most excluded. A shift has definitely happened here in Cambodia – and the Ministry of Education wants to provide education and learning for all children.
Last week, representatives from the Ministry, World Bank, UNICEF, EFA FTI, Handicap International (Belgium) and other NGOs met to share, update, and plan activities to reach the unreached children. Nath Bunroeun in his opening speech, summarized loud and clear the Cambodian commitment to Education and Learning for All children “We don’t need to hear why it needs to be done!’ he exclaimed, “We need help with how to do it. How to provide quality education for ALL children? How to move from talk to action! What targeted interventions work with specific groups of out of school children?”
His speech, was followed by my presentation of the Action Plan of the national scale-up for out of school children data collection, an update about the Cambodia country report for UNICEF/UIS Global Out of School Initiative, and a USAID funded project targeting children at risk of dropping out.
Missions for me are a reality check – where the work becomes very real, and the issues that we are tackling in Washington get grounded to the level of the individual child. Every time I travel, I am reminded about why I am working in this field, and what is the real purpose of what we are doing. For me, it’s all about the children. All children. But especially those tucked away deep in the folds of extreme poverty, left out, and hidden from existing education systems. And on every mission I come across one child or a group of children that make that link for me.
The night before this meeting I was having dinner with a friend at one of the restaurants on the busy street 278 in the heart of Phnom Penh when a young girl came up to our table holding a tray of fragrant jasmine flowers beaded into small wreaths often seen decorating Buddha statues or worn as a hair piece in Cambodia. It was about 8pm and she was still wearing her school uniform. She looked tired as she sat on the edge of the chair at our table placing the tray next to her. Her eyes lit up when she glanced across the table admiring the food. Grabbing a spare pair of chopsticks she made an eating motion bringing them to her mouth. We ordered another plate of food – chicken fried rice – and watched her eat methodically barely taking the eyes off the plate.
The pile of rice grew smaller, she said her name was Srenat and she was 10. Her father drops her and her 3 siblings on street 278 every night at 6pm and picks them up at 1am. She does not beg for money, or sell much, but is mostly there to scavenge for a free meal.
Child labor and extreme poverty are two big contributing factors to why children never enroll in school or drop out. Children as young as 7 start work in Cambodia and many other developing countries. Our project confirmed that many children do not attend school because they have to contribute to the family income. Working children often become victims of crime and abuse. UNICEF reports that millions of children are caught in hazardous conditions, working in mines, or with chemicals and pesticides, in agriculture, or operating dangerous machinery. They are everywhere, but largely invisible, toiling as domestic servants in homes, laboring behind the walls of workshops, hidden from view in plantations.
In Sub-Saharan Africa around one in three children are forced to work- that’s 69 million children. In South Asia that’s another 44 million.
What will it take to provide millions of children like Srenat with the chance to have a normal childhood, to be able to go to school and to learn?