Education challenges of minority groups in Cambodia

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Cambodia is a developing country, which is located in South East Asia, and most of the citizens are Buddhist and Khmer is their mother tongue. On the one hand, there are diverse nations living together such as: Chinese, Cham, Vietnamese and others including ethnic minority groups who are living in the northeastern provinces of Cambodia. (UNESCO & CARE, 2005). Recently, 34.5% of teachers in remote areas and 6.4% in rural areas have not attended higher education. Many rural families depend on agriculture for a living, and education costs are the highest expense they are facing. Basically, they are impossible to send all of their children to school, especially girls because of the personal security, and long distance between schools in rural and remote areas (UNESCO, 2010). This study also mentions that children who do not attend school and who likely drop out are the children with disabilities, girls and children from rural, remote and border areas (p. 29). It is really difficult for them to study because of their languages use, eventually bilingual education is integrating and adapting into communities. Teachers from the local communities are trained to meet the educational needs of the children in the communities, time table are adapted base on farming seasons, and the schools are run by Community Boards (UNESCO & CARE, 2005). The purpose of this research is focusing on the following questions:

What are the better strategies to improve minority groups' education to meet MoEYS's objectives and vision?

Does the bilingual education project help minority groups to reach higher and better education?

What can MoEYS, Cambodia Government as well as NGOs contribute to develop minority groups' education?

Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport of Cambodia

As the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport's vision in the Education Strategic Plan 2009-2013 (2010) stated that "in order to develop a knowledge-based society within Cambodia it has to establish and develop human resources with the highest quality and ethics" (p. 1). To achieve this vision, MoEYS has the mission of leading, managing and developing the Education, Youth and Sport sector in Cambodia in response to the socio-economic and cultural development needs of its people and the reality of regionalization and globalization. Meanwhile, a long-term objective of the MoEYS is to achieve the holistic development of Cambodia's young people for all sectors and an immediate objective is also to make sure that all Cambodian children and youth have equal opportunity to gain quality of education consistent with the Constitution and the Royal Government's commitment to the UN Child Rights Convention, regardless of social status, geography, ethnicity, religion, language, gender and physical form (p. 2). To succeed in achieving the above objectives and vision, MoEYS has defined three main policy priorities and two are mentioned as follows:

Ensure equitable access to educational services by building schools as close as possible to residences, decreasing the number of incomplete primary schools, increasing operational budgets to schools, increasing the supply of teachers, providing houses to teachers and building dormitories for students in disadvantaged areas, especially girls, disabilities and minority groups (p. 13). In order to achieve this policy, there many strategies raised in this Education Strategic Plan 2009-2013 by MoEYS and some are presenting here. The first strategy is to ensure entry of all six year olds into primary school including children from poor families, child laborers, children in disadvantaged areas, children with disabilities, children affected by HIV/AIDS, and ethnic minority groups. The second objective is to increase opportunities for equitable access to higher education through increasing the number of scholarships for prioritized students from poor families, females and students from remote areas (p. 15). Similarly, the Education Sector Support Program 2006-2010 by MoEYS (2005) also stated that "the secondary schools scholarships program objectives will be to ensure increased education opportunities for students with high academic merit from the poorest and disadvantaged families, especially girls and ethnic minorities, through a gradual increase in the number of targeted scholarships for the poor" (p. 27)

To improve the quality and efficiency of educational services by increasing the provision of school instructional materials, libraries and laboratories, and continuing to further develop the curriculum, increasing learning hours and providing scholarships (cash and food) to poor students, enhancing teaching and management capacities, strengthening the teachers' code of conduct, improving schools' environment, expanding vocational orientation, increasing inspection of administration, finance and education quality assurance (MoEYS, 2010, pp.13-15)

Economic situation of minority groups

People who are living in the rural and remote areas do not have easy access to all the possibilities markets, especially businesses. Their lives are depending on the season, and when the planting time come most people are working in the fields. They have to spend most of their time in the fields in order to earn higher income to support the families and communities. Their incomes come from selling rice, handicrafts and vegetables but it is still very low. They can earn about eighty seven thousand riel or under twenty two dollars per month per household. Before getting this money they have to travel to markets to sell products to Cambodian traders and buy something that they regularly need such as: tobacco, cigarettes, medicines, clothes and some foods.

Thus, there is very little time left for them to think of education or sending their children to schools especially girls who are not literate at all. Additionally, only a few men are literate (UNESCO, 2005)

Basic information of minority groups education

Duos to the conditions of living are far away from the downtowns, minority groups do not have easy to schools. According to UNCESO (2005), "education levels were higher for males than females; no female aged 15 and over had completed primary school, and only 8.2% have had any education at all. The majority of villagers were 77.8% illiterate in Khmer, and aged 15 and over spoke little or no Khmer 83.5%". (p.22)

Races and ethnicity groups in Cambodia

Recently, Cambodia is developing all sectors especially education sectors in different destinations including urban and rural areas, which are located far away from towns. Examples include the rural regions of Ratanakiri and Modulkiri which have higher rates of non-enrollment compared to national averages. Children who are living within minority groups are not reached because of their poverty situation and rural location. So far, "there are 36 ethnic minority groups in Cambodia accounting for about 4 percent of the population" (World Bank as cited in UNICEF, 2007, p.6)

Bilingual education for minority groups

To teach bilingual education to minority groups is difficult because many are illiterate both in speaking and writing in Khmer. As a report from Chap and Thomas, (2003) mentioned that "the gap is widening as ethic minority people fail to gain access to education and development initiatives. The linguistic barrier is the foremost challenge to accessing development and education as few people especially women and children from the ethnic minority communities speak the national language". Chap and Thomas (2003) also stated that nearly all-ethnic minority females and over 80% of the males were illiterate and most children had never attended school. "The bilingual education pilot project uses a model of instruction that begins in the vernacular and progresses to Khmer so that students learn to read and write both languages. Base on the project, five minority languages now have alphabets using the Khmer script, and the Cambodian government has recently approved all five alphabets." (p.1). In addition, the same report states that current bilingual efforts are concentrated on five languages in northeastern Cambodia, with additional linguistic research in several other languages which have populations scattered throughout the county. The Cambodian governmental goals are to help local people to serve in all sectors in their home villages and provinces including an emphasis on ethnic minorities, with special strategies to meet their specific needs and challenges, many of which differ from those of the lowland Khmer populations. Furthermore, this report states that the bilingual education strategy is important for meeting Cambodia's national Education For All (EFA) goals and basically we know that the effective way is to start from the known and move to the unknown because Khmer is a foreign language for the ethnic minority groups, thus they need to start with their own language in order to access Khmer. Based on this, bilingual education helps highland populations engage more fully in development and nation-building and helps them to make development plans appropriate to their communities in order to ensure a positive future (p.3)


Although the education of ethnic minority children is very complicated, the programs that address these issues have been implemented with considerable success as the result of partnerships between the government, NGOs, local communities, and donor agencies. Meanwhile, bilingual education projects have been piloted by CARE, ICC, SCN and others in the northern border provinces (Mondulkiri, Preah Vihear, Ratanakiri, and Stung Treng) using the mother tongue languages including Kawait, Kreung, Phnorng, Pompuon and Kou. Moreover, bilingual education is expected to be developed based on the pilot programs and special offers have been provided for teachers who are employed to remote and ethnic minority areas. The MoEYS is developing Khmer scripts for the above five ethnic minority groups in order to encourage them to learn both mother tongue and the national language, Khmer, using both formal education and life skills curricula (UNESCO, 2010, p.30). In addition, the government continues to establish dormitories for female students, build schools at all levels, especially in rural and remote areas and they are also increasing scholarships for poor students. (p.34)