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Cambodia Facing Ongoing Literacy Challenges

Visitors watch as Cambodian orphans learn computer skills and exploring the Internet world during the opening ceremony at the Future Light Orphanage on the outskirt of Phnom Penh, file photo.

Cambodia’s literacy has improved over the past decade, but key challenges remain for girls, the rural poor and minorities, education experts say.

According to government figures, the literacy rate stands at about 70 percent. But that may only be basic literacy, where another ability, functional literacy, is harder to define.

Still, education experts say that still leaves 30 percent of the population without the ability to read or write, though that percentage could improve as the younger generation goes through school to learn to read and write.

Ministry of Education officials say they count a total enrollment of 3.2 million students, with about 607,000 in urban areas and more than 2.5 million in rural areas.

“This gathering of students at school means it is serving literacy,” Ou Eng, director general of the ministry, told VOA Khmer Thursday. “Cambodian students must get an education, and the first education is literacy.”

The literacy rate has improved greatly in the last 10 years. Unesco said in 1999 only about 37 percent of the population was “functionally literate,” with another 26.6 percent only “semi-literate.”

Santosh Khatri, an education specialist at Unesco, said Thursday that no further functional literacy tests have been conducted, so the rate now is unknown.

“Basic literacy is very important to build up on the functional literacy,” he said, but functional literacy has many levels and is hard to test.

Literacy is an important factor in quality of life, he said. It can improve one’s livelihood, skills and abilities, and help maintain peace.

Key challenges remain for Cambodia, including reducing the disparity of literacy rates among different groups.

Khatri said the adult literacy rate of Cambodia was 77.6 percent, but there was a wide gap between male (85.1 percent) and female (71 percent). The gap is even wider between urban dwellers (90.4 percent) and those in rural areas (74 percent). Minority groups, too, struggle with literacy.

Kan Kal, country director for Room to Read, a literacy NGO, said that urban-rural gap remained “worrisome.”

Other experts worry that the progress in literacy has slowed.

“We need to strengthen the process,” said Naoko Arakawa, an education specialist at Unesco.

And teachers say they worry as well.

“Among my 24 students in Grade 6, there are six students who cannot read,” said Ros Tith Malay, a teacher at Boeung Traboek primary school. Those who cannot read often come from poor homes or live with domestic violence, she said.

Rong Chhun, who is head of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, said Thursday that many girls and boys only attend lower level classes, but they soon fall out of the system. The Cambodian education system does not aim for “quality,” he said.

However, Ou Eng of the Ministry of Educaiton said the government is now putting more focus on literacy, especially for children.

“Now we are prepared to publish new books to make it easier than before for children to read and write,” he said.