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In Siem Reap, Poor Girls Want To Stay in School

Kul Srey Mao stands in front of her school where First Lady Michelle Obama visited lady Friday to promote her 'Let Girls Learn' initiative.
Kul Srey Mao stands in front of her school where First Lady Michelle Obama visited lady Friday to promote her 'Let Girls Learn' initiative.

Impoverished girls in Siem Reap say they hope for a better education, in the wake of First Lady Michelle Obama’s visit.

These are girls like Kul Srey Mao, 13, who is in the 7th grade and hopes to become a teacher. “But I am not sure if I can finish my study and become a teacher since my family is very poor,” she told VOA Khmer.

Obama left Cambodia on Sunday, following a brief trip to promote her “Let Girls Learn” initiative, which will take place in 11 countries and seek to find ways to keep girls in school. But major challenges remain to keep more girls in class.

Girls in Siem Reap province say they are aware of the importance of education, especially higher education, to escape poverty.

Phlong Pear, a widow and mother, looks after five children, following the death of her husband, in 2003, including Kul Srey Mao. She gives her daughter 1,000 real, about $0.25, each day, to buy food or study materials.

At their home, about 40 kilometers outside the provincial capital, there is little to connect her family to the outside world: no computer, no television, no radio, no phone. The family eats rice and fried fish and lives in a ramshackle cottage with barely enough space for them all to lie down at the same time.

Kul Srey Mao says education is a way out of poverty, to avoid her mother’s life: a construction worker who makes between $0.50 to $5 per day. “I do not want to be like my mother,” she said.

Her mother can’t find a better job because she is illiterate, Kul Srey Mao said. Her best way out is to become a teacher, but poverty could prevent that, she said. “My family is too poor,” she said. “I don’t think I can make my dream come true.”

She had not heard of “Let Girls Learn,” but she said she hoped the first lady of the United States could help her and others.

Her life is typical of many girls in the countryside, who must work at home to help their mothers with chores and babysitting. Kul Srey Mao goes to school, but when she arrives home, she rushes to wash the dishes and clean the house and help with cooking. She studies late at night. She is among the top 10 students in school, and she said without all the extra work, she could be the best one.

“I do not have enough time,” she said.

Kul Srey Mao bikes 30 minutes to school and back. She has never had a bowl of Chinese noodles on break, and never been to Siem Reap city, or Phnom Penh. She has never even been to a temple. She said she’d like a TV, “since then I could see the news and find out what is going on.”

There are many similar stories in families around Siem Reap, home to the famed temple and tourist attraction of Angkor Wat. Out here, there are teachers like Vong Nary, who has been teaching high school for 10 years, watching as young girls drop out.

“The most challenging part is a family’s destitution,” she said. “Some families are poor but still send their kids to school; some are poor and want their kids to quit school to help them make money. They do this because they can see the money from working straight away.” Many girls quit because other girls quit. Sometimes the travel back and forth is too much. Sometimes they get home late, in the dark, which is no good.

The family of Sen Sophey faces the same problem: poverty. Sen Sophey is an 8th grader who wants to become a tour guide, earning $30 to $50 a day, she said. She is smart and does well in school, but her family may one day insist she leave.

Her mother has four children to feed. “I am afraid one day she might have to quit school,” her mother said. On top of that, there is family strife. “My husband is drunk every day,” her mother said. “He sometimes causes problems.”

Last year Sen Sophey had to take time off from school to look after her father, who fell ill, while her mother worked. These days, she must wake up in the middle of the night to help her mother pick water hyacinth to sell at market. She goes to bed around 7 pm, and wakes up around midnight or 1 am to help her mother. She finishes this at 4 am, then helps her mother tie bundles of the flowers together. They put together 40 bundles per night, worth about 300 riel, less than $0.10, per bundle.

Sen Sophey had not heard of Obama’s visit. “We do not have a radio,” she said.