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Education Key to Gender Equality, Experts Say

US First Lady Michelle Obama arrived with Cambodian first lady Bun Rany at Hun Sen Prasat Bakong Hight School, around 40 Kilometer outside of Siem Reap town, Saturday, March 21, 2015, to promote her “Let Girls Learn” initiative. (Noeu Vannarin/VOA Khmer)

The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has drafted a five-year plan to strengthen gender equality and empower women. But many experts believe that education is the first place to start.

Education for young girls is not a priority for many Cambodian families, decreasing the odds for gender equality in the future.

Susan Markham, head of gender equality and women’s empowerment at USAID, told VOA Khmer in a recent interview that good education and good governance are important factors in creating equality.

“You need to have people feel educated and feel that education is actually an important job,” she said.

The Ministry of Women’s Affairs hopes to improve social attitudes towards girls’ education and literacy, while decreasing domestic violence, child marriage and other impediments girls face.

The ministry’s plan, which it began in late 2014, cites “negative social attitudes towards girls’ education, illiteracy and low levels of parent’s education, child marriage, domestic violence, and opportunity costs of education” as critical challenges for achieving gender equality in Cambodia.

“There is disparity in access to education between men and women in Cambodia, and that leads to gender inequality,” Ros Sopheap, executive director of Gender and Development for Cambodia, said. “Consequently, the country cannot develop to its full capacity.”

In March, First Lady Michelle Obama visited Cambodia, to implement her “Let Girls Learn” initiative, which seeks to empower women and girls in rural areas through education.

“When girls get educated, when they learn to read and write and think, that gives them the tools to speak up and to talk about injustice and to demand equal treatment,” Obama said.

Women can help reduce poverty and contribute to growth, but the change needs to start from parents, who must send their daughters to school, Dyna Heng, a US-based economist, said.

“Between 80 to 90 percent of women contribute their income to family building, and the success stories of women getting better education can encourage more women to participate in economic activities and eradicate traditional norms toward women,” he said.

Of Cambodia’s $3.9 billion national budget for 2015, $453 million is put toward education, a slight increase over the year before.