According to a study by the Education Management Information System (EMIS), in Cambodia, only 33 percent of girls are enrolled in lower secondary school and 11 percent at upper secondary school. As education level increases, so does the ratio between males to females. Those that do not receive the rare opportunity of schooling support themselves largely through family. Young men who cannot afford higher education have options such as joining Buddhist monasteries; women, however, lack such opportunities. Cambodian society harbors a stigma towards female education; many are intimidated by the thought of a powerful woman.
At my previous school, I connected with a Cambodian teacher who, last summer, brought me to schools around her home-country to teach classes in mathematics and English. The most prominent facility was the Program Advancing Girls’ Education (PAGE) in Siem Reap. The non-profit organization provides meals, housing, and schooling to 36 girls – whom, without it, would never have had the chance for higher education. All girls live in one facility, where they attend high school in the morning and additional classes in the evening. At the moment, Cambodian students are in the middle of their summer vacation. For most of us, this break means leisure and relaxation–not for these girls. This year, I traveled to Cambodia primarily to instruct English; however, I was, for the first time, without my Khmer speaking friend. I arrived at PAGE mid-afternoon. The girls immediately dropped their activities and prepared for my class.
These girls, like many young Cambodians, believe English plays a key role in their future success. Each day, for three uninterrupted hours, I teach English. The girls can read and write at an introductory level; however, their speaking and listening skills tend to be poor, so I’ve designed my classes to emphasize the latter skills. For them to understand my instructions, I speak slowly and use only basic vocabulary. The language barrier is challenging, but we have managed to make do, although I am often stranded at the board gesturing frantically. Once some of the girls understand, they translate to their friends.
Topics I’ve instructed include: verb tense, asking and giving directions, contractions, and keeping conversation. To my amazement, through three hours of class, their attention is transfixed to the board. I once attempted to give a five-minute break they used the time to review their notes. On weekdays, after dinner, I drop by another non-profit school near Angkor Wat to teach primary school students for an hour and a half. Like the PAGE girls, they share similar deficiencies in their ability to speak and listen to English. The girls, while I’m gone, venture into the city for extra courses, biking for at least half an hour in the dark.
PAGE is run completely off of donations. This means that they often lack means of getting basic school supplies such as whiteboard markers, pencil cases, and notebooks. With help from a CSGC Workman Grant, I bought many of these necessary supplies, along with several bikes to help the girls travel.
As for the girls, their enthusiasm and drive to learn is unparalleled, compared even to Deerfield students. Despite, or perhaps because of, their circumstances, they leap at every chance to educate themselves, to provide themselves with the chance of a future – one they’ve been denied since birth. And they do it all without breaks.
I am eager to see what the future holds for these girls and deeply honored to be a part of it.