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Obama Leaves With Words of Encouragement for Girls

Cambodian Education Minister Mr. Hang Choun Naron talks to reporters after the departure of US First Lady Michelle Obama at Siem Reap International Airport, Sunday, March 22, 2015. (Neou Vannarin/VOA Khmer)

Following First Lady Michelle Obama’s three-day visit to Cambodia to promote her “Let Girl Learn” initiative, Cambodian officials say they hope for positive changes in girls’ education.

Speaking to journalists after Obama’s departure from Siem Reap, Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron said her visit gave strong encouragement for girls’ education in Cambodia.

“This is a good opportunity for Cambodia to strengthen cooperation and implement education reform in Cambodia,” he said. “The Ministry of Education and USAID will establish programs to continue to encourage and provide opportunities to female students.”

Cambodia has nearly 1.5 million female students studying at primary and high schools, he said. But only 42 percent go on to obtain bachelor’s degrees, 24 percent get master’s and 5 percent go on to get doctorates.

Cambodia’s traditional “gender bias,” family’s economic issues, and concerns of their parents create obstacles for girls’ education in Cambodia, Choun Naron said.

“It’s because some students left school for work, including garment factories,” he said, adding that the government will continue to build more dormitories and higher education institutions in the provinces and provide scholarships to poor students at universities to encourage more girls attending school.

Obama’s trip to Cambodia ended on Sunday. During her visit to Siem Reap province, Obama visited Hun Sen Prasat Bakong High School, where she heard education stories from female students. She also attended a “Let Girls Learn” training program.

Cambodia is one of the 11 countries in the program, which is being run by the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps has been in Cambodia since 2007.

Speaking during opening remarks at the Peace Corps training event on Saturday, Obama said letting girls stay in school will bring positive changes to the country.

“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,” she said. “It helps them participate in the political life of their country and hold their leaders accountable, to call for change when their needs and aspirations aren’t being met.”