THERE I WAS IN SIEM REAP’S main tourist hot spot, where you can get a $3 massage in the same room where you can get a $10 happy ending. There was a Cambodian boy on Pub Street gesturing at a dirty-faced woman holding a baby. She was a statue in the milling throng. “Please, I don’t want money. I just want milk for the baby,” he said.
The woman watched our interaction intently as the boy moved closer to me. “I don’t want money. I only want milk,” he repeated.
He looked about 13 years old, with light brown skin, a round shaved head and bloodshot Mongol eyes. I hesitated. He clutched my hand. I looked around for my friend, Becs, and the two Indian boys from the hotel who had accompanied us to dinner. But they had already streamed through the masses, jaded to the pleas of begging children in the city.
I had read on Lonely Planet that there is a common “milk scam” in Cambodia. Children convince foreigners to buy formula for a baby, pick out the most expensive one, and then sell it back to the shop. The profits are split between the shop owner and whatever adult is, in essence, “pimping” the child.
Earlier that day, Becs and I had toured Angkor City, where hordes of children accosted every visitor, offering souvenirs for $1. Security guards handed out passes to regulate visits to the third level of Angkor Wat or Phnom Bakheng Hill. Along with guidelines for respectful behavior and dress codes, the passes explicitly stated that you shouldn’t give money to the children because it encourages them to skip school.
“While oftentimes travelers are motivated to contribute when seeing poverty and children in vulnerable situations, the way they contribute could be more harmful than helpful to the children,” Iman Marooka, Chief of Communication at UNICEF Cambodia, told me in an email interview. He explained that giving money to begging children, “perpetuates their vulnerability and exploitation.”
I already knew all that, but I still faltered. Every day I had spent in Siem Reap had ate away at me. It was a constant stream of pleas and my subsequent white guilt. The boy’s grip on my arm was curiously strong as he continued to insist that he didn’t want money, only milk. Eventually one of my Indian friends, Pranith, turned back and saw me still standing there. He weaved his way through the crowd and pulled my hand away from the child. We started turning away.
The boy punched my side. “Fuck you,” he said. I kept walking.
According to statistics from a World Bank project — LEAP in Siem Reap — 2010 brought 1.3 million international visitors to Siem Reap, with more than $606 million in revenue — a number that has definitely increased in the past six years. However, Siem Reap Province still remains one of the poorest in Cambodia, with the identifiable poor households reaching 31 percent in 2012, according to an Asian Development Bank study. The average hotel or restaurant staff salary is $60 per month.
So where is all that extra tourism money going? Is it staying in the country, or going out to the Korean and French business owners who apparently own more than half the establishments in town?
Among other causes of poverty besides profiteering, some of the most prominent are a lack of assets and low productivity, plus a lack of access to markets and an inability to compete with Thai and Vietnamese products. Due to low education, there’s also a lack of voice in the country’s decision-making. The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport recognizes that for Cambodia to join the competitive market and become a middle income country, education needs to improve.
The Ministry’s website states that they envisage, “a time when graduates from all its institutions will meet regional and international standards and will be competitive in the job markets worldwide and act as engines for social and economic development in Cambodia.”
But education in Cambodia is not compulsory. Article 36 of the Education Law states that, “parents or guardians of small children are encouraged to take their children whose age is 6 years old or at least 70 months to enroll in Grade 1 of primary education; to try their best to support the studies of their children…”
To try their best. The Cambodian government does offer nine free years of public education — from primary to secondary school — but parents still have to pay for uniforms, transportation, school supplies and any extra tuition fees. Plus they have to cope with the potential loss of income that might result from their children not working.
And what about upper secondary school? What about higher education?
Public education, and some private education, is offered in shifts. This means that the child attends either morning or afternoon classes — but they won’t receive a full day of learning.
“While this strategy can solve the problem of access, it may compromise quality, as it gives teachers less time to prepare their lesson plans or materials,” Marooka says.
According to the Education Statistics and Indicators for Siem Reap Province, the dropout rate in Grade 1 was only 8 percent between 2013 and 2014. However by Grade 9, dropouts grew to 18.8 percent, and skyrocketed to 59 percent by Grade 12. The upper secondary school completion rates are now around 19 percent.
If we want to use a familiar comparison, the dropout rates are 2 percent between Grades 9 and 12 in Massachusetts and the graduation rates are 86 percent. In the District of Columbia, arguably the United States’ worst district for public education, the dropout rates for 2011 through 2012 were 5.8 percent, and the graduation rates were 62.3 percent.
Sophea Pet, an assistant at the Volunteer Development Children’s Association in Siem Reap, told me that many children drop out because they aren’t doing well in school. He said that neither they, nor their parents, truly understand the importance of education. The children see begging on the streets or running small shops with their families as an easier way to make a living.
“Education for Cambodian children relies on parents waking up to take their children to school,” said Pet. “The parents are often uneducated and hard to talk to. They just see money as the most important.”
Pet called himself an “assistant,” but on the afternoon of our interview, I jostled up in a tuk tuk and he seemed to be running the show at the free supplementary school. The Siem Reap site and their sister school in Anlung Pi Village focuses on English, computer and art lessons for students aged 5-25. It is an NGO that thrives on volunteers and partnerships with organizations like Project Enlighten of the United States and Cambodian Schools of Hope, Inc. of Australia, among others. There is no recruitment process to find children to attend. Children show their motivation to learn by coming to the school of their own volition. Classes are held in the afternoon, after public school lets out.
In front of the hectic free supplementary school, located near the Wat Thmey Pagoda, was an adequate soccer field filled with elated children kicking around a ball. I walked slowly through the front gates. The space was filled with the playful energy that only happy children in a learning environment can produce. A few older kids chatted away in the center courtyard of the school while the younger ones occupied the surrounding classrooms, about 10 in total. The walls were covered in motivational English phrases and colorful artwork. I introduced myself to Pet and offered him a donation of school supplies as he pulled out a chair for me to sit down, eyes darting between me and the classrooms.
“Two of the teachers didn’t show up today, so I’m teaching three classes,” he explained, flustered.
I wished I had come earlier to help out, and not just to conduct an interview.
“When I was a kid, I woke myself up to go to school,” he continued. “My parents just wanted me to make money and go to Thailand to be a construction worker. I moved to Siem Reap by myself and believe that study is better.”
Pet said that the Ministry of Education is indeed working very hard to improve education standards through a reform agenda. They have improved the quality of the Grade 12 exam, and as a result, almost 56 percent of students passed the national upper secondary education exam last year, compared to 42 percent in the previous school year. However, Pet believes that change has to start with a compulsory education law, similar to the United States, where the government and the police work together to make sure children of a certain age are in school during the day. This would give children more motivation to attend school.
“Without education,” he said. “They will be begging for not only a short time, but for their whole lives.”
After we spoke, I went around to the classrooms while he made his own rounds, passed out Oreos and sang the ABCs with the kids, most of whom seemed younger than 10 years old.
The day after I interviewed Pet, I toured the temples as usual, but thoughts of the children stayed with me. I stepped lightly with sandaled shoes on 1,000-year-old stone, swimming through the wet heat in the air.
The last temple I visited was Ta Prohm, a sanctuary of thick silk-cotton trees pushed their way through cracks in the stone and endless roots gnarled over gopuras. As I left the complex, a young girl who was manning one of the stands called out to me.
“Hey, lady, you dropped money,” I heard her childish voice call from behind me.
I whipped my head around, but I knew I hadn’t dropped anything. She giggled behind her hand, enjoying her trick. I smiled and walked over to her.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Me? I am 13,” she said.
“Why aren’t you in school?” I asked.
“Oh, I go to school later,” she said. It was around 1 in the afternoon.
She saw the look of incomprehension on my face, so she said, “Look, really. I go to school later.” She walked over to her backpack, opened it, and showed me its contents. Inside was a school uniform, a few notebooks and pencils. She even opened the notebooks to show me that she had written in them. I could see that her name was Saroeurm.
“I learn English in private school. Western International School. I go at 2 o’clock. You help me start my business? You buy something, you help me with business so I can go to school,” she said.
I let my eyes float over her shop’s offerings, and settled on a breezy cotton dress with peacock feathers and a scarf with Angkor Wat printed on it. It cost me $4. UNICEF may not have approved.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked as I felt through my wallet for some bills. She looked confused, so I asked what she would do when she finished school. She replied that she might continue to run the shop with her sister, a woman with a soft round face that I hadn’t noticed was watching us protectively the whole time.
“Do you want to go to university?” I asked, hopeful.
She laughed nervously. “Not yet,” she said. “That’s four years from now. I’m just thinking…” she paused, trying to find the words. “I’m thinking step by step.”
Her older brother showed up to take Saroerum to school. His name was Bun Hoeurn, and he worked at Sonalong Boutique Village and Resort as a receptionist. He spoke English well, and at the time, was waiting on university test results to come back so he could pursue a career as a teacher in Siem Reap. I asked Bun if he thought Saroerum would attend university, too, someday.
“I really want her to study at university because in Cambodia, if you just graduate Grade 12, there are no jobs,” he said. “I want her to study, but if she doesn’t want to go, there is nothing I can do, so we need to talk to her.”
Bun took Saroerum out of public school and put her in private school, at Western International, because he wasn’t happy with the quality of education.
“She studied for six years in the village,” said Bun. “I tested her knowledge. The quality of the teacher is low, so she cannot grow enough.”
Bun claims that many of the teachers at public school are only required to finish Grade 9, pass an exam, and study teaching for two more years to teach at primary school. I checked the statistics, and according to a paper on part of a study on “Contract teachers and their impact on meeting EFA goals” completed by the World Bank, what Bun said has truth to it. Authors Richard Geeves and Kurt Bredenberg found that while only 7.1 percent of Cambodian teachers just finished primary school, they are largely concentrated in remote areas where they make up nearly half of the teaching staff. About 70 percent of teachers have only studied to lower secondary education, Grade 9. While most of the teachers have received some form of pedagogical training, the statistics don’t show whether the teachers learned at training centers or just on the job.
“There is a lot of corruption in Cambodia,” Bun lamented. “Teachers only get about $60 a month salary. They often go and get another job because the salary is too low, and they don’t pay 100 percent attention to the student.”
Now Bun is paying around $160 a month to send his sister to school, but he says it is worth it to get her a better education and improve her potential future. The private school is also a shift school, so Saroeurm must work in the morning. Luckily, the little entrepreneur likes to work and is good at it. I secretly hoped she wouldn’t get stuck doing it because she knows that she is able to.
“When the children work in the temples selling souvenirs, they are too lazy to study,” said Bun in a hushed voice.
That seemed to be the general consensus. So how do you motivate children and families who are ignorant to the realities? The future of their country depends on them and if they don’t educate themselves, their country won’t succeed.
Bun’s silent sister was closing down the shop around us as we spoke. It was time to take Saroerum to school. I thanked them for taking the time to talk to me, and got Bun’s contact information so we could keep in touch. As I walked back towards the gate, my new purchases slung over my forearm, I reflected on the individual children I had met in Siem Reap, the ones who wanted to learn, and the ones who didn’t. I was on their side now. I could see how their surrounding environment affected their lives, and how their actions would affect their environment.
How you can help
Donate time: While voluntourism is in vogue at the moment, do your research before you decide to spend a week volunteering directly with children, especially if you are not qualified in your own country to teach or take care of children. If you don’t speak the local language, you won’t be able to communicate well with the children, and volunteering for only a short amount of time could cause other issues with the kids. If you can’t stay on as a full time teacher, the best ways to volunteer are to find an organization that is legally registered and protects their children based on UN standards. You can help by fundraising, marketing, spreading awareness, making films, teaching skills to local teachers, etc. For more information, check out tips from Child Safe Movement.
Donate money: Organizations like UNICEF, NEF, CARE and VSO are reliable and honest. They have the resources to provide support to vulnerable families. They help children remain with their families, get an education, provide school supplies, and help family members find employment.
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