Indigenous children face hurdles in access to education during the pandemic

School closures and financial pressures caused by the pandemic are pushing more children out of education, as seen in a remote village in Ratanakiri where 50 percent of students are absent.
A student writes a note in his book in a classroom in Phnom Penh. Picture: Sam
A student writes a note in his book in a classroom in Phnom Penh. Picture: Sam

In a small wooden primary school classroom located in a remote indigenous village, Rochom Samoeun sits on a chair waiting for his students to arrive. It is almost time for the class to start, but, as usual, half of his students are absent. Instead of studying, they are busy helping their parents harvest crops.

Rochom Samoeun is a Grade 3 teacher at Takokphnorng primary school in the O’yadav district of Ratanakiri province. His class is now conducted physically as COVID-19 cases are dropping, he said. However, some students still find it hard to return to class due to their family’s financial difficulties.

‘’Coming from indigenous families, most of my students are barely encouraged to prioritize their study but asked to help their parent’s work,” he said. ‘’As of now, almost 50 percent of them are still absent as they are busy helping their parents harvest cassava.”

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UNESCO states in its global COVID-19 educational response that economic hurdles may keep children out of school. Along with long-term closures, the UN agency has written that “economic shocks place pressure on children to work and generate income to financially distressed families”.

Grade 3 students at Takokphnorng primary school in the O’yadav district, Ratanakiri province. Picture: Rochom Samoeun
Grade 3 students at Takokphnorng primary school in the O’yadav district, Ratanakiri province. Picture: Rochom Samoeun

Samoeun himself, who also comes from the ethnic community Jarai, said this is a common problem young indigenous children encounter during their lives as a student. And with less support from their parents, he said, these children cannot fully access basic education. This has the potential to lead to poor academic performance and school dropout.

‘’Some of my students still cannot read, even if they are already in Grade 3. I think this is the result of the little support they get,” he said. ‘’Due to the poor academic performance, students are more or less inspired to drop out of school.”

Education Ministry spokesman Ros Soveacha declined to comment when contacted for this story.

According to the Education Ministry, in the 2019-20 school year, the dropout rate for primary school students had increased by 6.8 percent, compared with 4.4 percent the previous year.

For lower secondary school students in grades 7 to 9, the dropout rate increased from 15.8 percent to 18.6 percent. The dropout rate for upper secondary grades 10-12 during that school year remained unchanged at 16.9 percent.

In a joint statement released on January 18, the World Bank Country Manager for Cambodia, Maryam Salim, said Cambodia has achieved great improvement in expanding access to education. ‘’But equitable access to education for a certain group of children, such as those living in remote areas, coming from poor families or ethnic minority communities, remains an issue,” she added.

Together with the Global Partnership for Education, the World Bank approved $69.25 million in funding to help Cambodia improve equitable basic education and address emerging problems in the education system.

Alice P. Albright, CEO of the Global Partnership for Education, said COVID-19 has affected education systems around the world, and Cambodia is no exception. ‘’We hope these funds will allow Cambodia to continue increasing access to quality education and ensure that the most vulnerable children are in school and learning,” she said.

With this new funding, the Cambodian government has expressed its commitment to addressing these emerging challenges. This includes low student learning outcomes and inequitable basic education counting from early childhood, primary and secondary education.

Foroogh Foyouzat, UNICEF Cambodia representative, said even before COVID-19 there were significant disparities in terms of access to education and learning outcomes across different socioeconomic groups. While the actual magnitude of the impact of COVID-19 on learning outcomes is yet to be fully known in Cambodia.

‘’We do know that many learners fell behind and the worst effects have been on the most vulnerable. It’s of the utmost importance that students aren’t left behind. The Asian Development Bank warns that the learning losses caused by prolonged school closures will significantly reduce the future productivity and lifetime earnings of affected students,” said Foyouzat.

She said the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected children’s schooling and learning. For the 2019/20 and 2020/21 school years, schools were closed more than they were open, with students engaged in distance learning. The Cambodian government with support from UNICEF and other partners has made efforts in providing alternative means of distance learning, both offline and online.

‘’However, the quality and quantity of learning services children received varied significantly across regions and socioeconomic groups, with disadvantaged children – including those with disabilities, those affected by migration, and minorities – having borne the brunt of the shortcomings of distance learning,” she said.

The UNICEF Cambodia’s representative said during the pandemic, the most vulnerable households experienced an income reduction of 50 percent or more, leaving them more likely to withdraw children from school and put them to work to help with the extra financial stress. ‘’Existing global evidence tells us, the longer children remain out of school, the less likely they are to return,” she said.