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Cambodia: A Country of Contrasts


Cambodia: A Country of Contrasts

The Kingdom of Cambodia is known for its natural beauty, its hospitable people, and its famous Angkor Wat temple. Unfortunately, for decades, it was also known for the horrors of war. Things are changing slowly, but in the meantime, the Southeast Asian nation remains a country of contrasts. While tourism has brought in money, Cambodia continues to struggle with corruption, low levels of literacy, and infant mortality.

Cambodia’s ethnic minority communities face some special challenges—preservation of their language and culture, as well as their traditional lands, which are rich in biodiversity and natural resources.

Many local organizations, including ProLiteracy partners, are working hard to improve the quality of life for the people of Cambodia.

One such group is the Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP), which is helping remote ethnic minority communities transform their lives as well as preserve their native language through community-based literacy programs.

NTFP is championing the Kavet Bilingual Literacy Project in six villages in northeastern Cambodia. The Kavet ethnic minority group is among the most disadvantaged in the country and is rebuilding communities following decades of civil war that impacted the region. The Kavet face high infant mortality rates, poverty, and low life expectancy. With their villages located in a remote part of the country, many have never had access to government schools.

But things are changing.

Literacy programs run by the NTFP have long focused on non-formal education. In the late 1990s, the first literacy teacher training sessions were held in Khmer, Cambodia’s national language. Since 2007, the organization’s efforts have focused on both Khmer and the newly written Kavet language, with NTFP providing training and support services.

The project supports the education of around 550 people, 60 percent of whom are teenage girls. At the heart of the project is the dedicated work of volunteers—32 volunteer teachers who run 16 literacy classes for the six Kavet villages in Ratanakiri Province.

In the Kavet Bilingual Program, students take about two or three years to master six books. The basic manuals teach reading, writing, math, and health information. After this, students can go on to the Khmer Post-Literacy Program, which again takes about two years to complete. All the literacy materials used in the project were developed in Ratanakiri Province in order to address the specific needs of the villagers.

Many of the students continue on and become literacy teachers, thus keeping the essence of the community-based approach alive. Each village has a community center made of wood or bamboo that also acts as a classroom. However, since the villagers relocate to remote hamlets for much of the year during the agricultural season, the classes must relocate between the village site and the hamlets. Each village, therefore, has at least three literacy classes, often held in the teachers’ houses far from the village. In order to accommodate the students, volunteers get together to help the teachers with the construction of bigger and sturdier houses.

This year, NTFP is hoping to expand libraries from three to all six locations. The project is actively looking for new funding to train community librarians as well as purchase classroom supplies, textbooks, and library books. The project is also looking for funding to support the week-long teacher training sessions, which are held four times a year, and which keep the teachers one step ahead of their students. 

Literacy in a person’s first language is often the foundation for their fluency in reading other languages. The community-based approach has benefited the Kavet by teaching them to read their native language and then transfer these skills to reading the national language, Khmer.

The students and volunteer teachers, as well as the community school boards and village leaders who oversee the project, are responding enthusiastically.

For example, Teacher Vang began to learn to read on the banks of the Lalay River, deep in the forest. Every evening he walked for more than an hour to attend the literacy class. Following the lesson, he slept in his hammock that he tied in the bamboo classroom. Then he returned to work in his distant rice fields at dawn.

“I attended class every night, and took the literacy book to the fields and studied whenever I took a break from the field work,” he said. “I worked at it every spare minute, carrying the book everywhere I went, and in three months I found I had learned to read.”

Today, Vang is the deputy village chief of Rok, where he oversees the six volunteer literacy teachers and three classes that serve about 75 youth and adult literacy students.

For more about ProLiteracy’s international work, read our Global Literacy Matters blog.

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| New Readers Press International Programs Ruth J. Colvin Center ProLiteracy Education Network