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Obama Gone, But Education Challenges Remain

Bong Yein, left, and her two customers, Ang Srey Mach and Ang Pisey, said that they were aware of Obama’s visit and her “Let Girls Learn” program.

Following the fanfare surrounding the visit of First Lady Michelle Obama over the weekend, life in Siem Reap returned to normal this week. Many here say they were not aware of the first lady’s visit, and some said even though they were, they aren’t sure what will happen next or how it will help.

“I do not know Obama, whoever she is,” said Bong Yein, who sells sticky rice cakes in front of Angkor Wat’s main temple. She has a niece in school, but they have not heard of Obama’s “Let Girls Learn” initiative, which seeks to find ways to keep girls’ in school.

“She has not said anything about that,” Bong Yein said.

Her reaction, and others here in the wake of the first lady’s visit, underscore how difficult it may be to build on the momentum of Obama’s trip, in order to solve deep-rooted problems in Cambodia’s systems and traditions that keep girls from completing their education.

Bong Yein’s two customers, sisters Ang Srey Mach and Ang Pisey, said that they were aware of Obama’s visit and her “Let Girls Learn” program.

“I heard that it is to help Cambodian girls learn, but I do not know how,” Ang Srey Mach said. “I don’t know how the program is going to change their lives.”

“I don’t know how it is going to help them,” Ang Pisey agreed.

Still, both said programs to help girls’ education are important. Ang Pisey said she hoped the visit would bring about change. “It’s important to help Cambodian students,” she said.

Nearby, a 7th-grade schoolgirl named Chan Nak was selling postcards. She said she has heard of Obama’s visit, but she wasn’t sure what would come of it. “I don’t know how she is going to help,” Chan Nak said. “If she doesn’t help with money or anything, it is useless. I didn’t get anything.”

Five kilometers down the road from the temple, which Obama visited on her final day in Cambodia, drink seller Chhoeun Poeun, who has a 4-year-old daughter, said she wasn’t sure how the first lady’s program would help girls.

“I heard she is going to help women in crisis and girls, but I do not know how she is going to help,” Chhoeun Poeun said. “I don’t know how this visit is going to help. It might turn out to be nothing.”

Even further from the temples, other women said they had not heard of the visit or the program. “I have no idea who they are,” said Srey Mao, a drink shop owner. Her customer, Heam Chea, said she had seen a news brief on Obama’s visit, but had not learned more. “I was too tired to pay attention,” she said.