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Obama Initiative Greeted With Wary Optimism


Cambodian students wave their national flags during a ceremony to celebrate its Independence Day, file photo.

Cambodian students wave their national flags during a ceremony to celebrate its Independence Day, file photo.

Rights groups and development organizations say they welcome Obama’s “Let Girls Learn” initiative, but a host of obstacles remains for education across the country.

The three-day visit by the first lady will include meetings with local leaders, in an effort to understand those obstacles.

“This is a good idea, because in Cambodia I simply see that sometimes female students have less opportunity than male students in access to education,” Chea Kosal, country director for the Kampuchean Action for Primary Education organization, said.

Some, though, were skeptical the program will work, especially in the face of poverty, corruption and poor governance.

“In Cambodia, it’s not possible, because the figures of dropout are so high, and poverty reduction has not been done successfully,” said Rong Chhun, president of the Independent Teachers Association. “A key element is to solve the salary problem for teachers. If a proper salary for teachers is not addressed, the education in Cambodia won’t have the quality.”

Social problems remain, as well, he said. Parents have lost confidence in the education system, where they have to pay money, often in bribes, for students to attend class. Even when they finish school, people can’t find work, he said, or they find jobs with low wages.

Those problems are the same for both boys and girls, but girls have an even tougher time staying in school, as pressure from family and society often mean they stay home or go out to find work at a young age.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said Cambodia “highly pays attention over women, for more participation” in society. The constitution stipulates equal rights, and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party “is leading to allow women to have more participation,” he said. More US investment would help the economy, which would in turn help education, he added.

However, Am Sam Ath, monitoring supervisor for the rights group Licadho, said the government would do well to pay attention to Obama’s program.

“I think that the presence of Mrs. Obama is to foster and encourage Cambodian women to have more participation, especially regarding education, developing their communities, as well as their nation,” he said. “When there are more women who participate, our country will be more developed, and this will also benefit women’s interests.”

Women in society face many pressures, he said. Most recently women protesters have been jailed, following demonstrations for housing rights. “They face all kinds of threats, including imprisonment and the use of violence,” he said.

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