As his 18-year-old peers were graduating from high school, Tiv Sim, who hails from an indigenous community, was enrolling in Grade One alongside students three times younger than him. Today, Sim is the founder of the social enterprise Ratanak Farm, which helps young students in his community get into higher education.
Sim, 39, is of mixed indigenous Tampoun Kreng and lives in Ratanakiri province. He was born and raised in a poor household without access to proper education and was obligated to farm to support his family when his father passed away. “Our living was largely dependent on farming and harvesting forest products. Day-by-day I can tell, it became so difficult to make a living relying on that,” he said.
So, in 2002, at the age of 18, Sim decided to start school with the hope of pushing through the poverty line and securing a better occupation than he had at that time. ‘’I thought, I can no longer rely on what I was doing at that time. Therefore, I decided to register in Grade One with six-year-old children. Despite the criticism and age gap, I had hoped to have a better job to support my family,” he said.
It was difficult for him to start school so late as he could not speak Khmer. Additionally, his family’s financial difficulties make it even harder for him to pursue education. However, with commitment and effort, Sim completed his studies and is now pursuing a Master’s degree in General Management at a university in his hometown in Ratanakiri.
‘’After graduating, I worked for an NGO as an agricultural specialist for six years. I also worked for 10 years as a general educator in my community,” he said.
With the challenges he has encountered, Sim knows exactly what students in his community face, especially women, to keep up with their studies. So, in 2021, when COVID-19 hit Cambodia hard, he established the social enterprise Ratanak Farm, in O’chom district, aiming to help indigenous students who are at high risk of dropping out of school.
‘’The main aim of this establishment is to help young students, especially women, by providing them with shelter and basic needs to enable them to have access to education,” he said. “As of now, 15 students are staying at my place, and I firmly hope to get many more when the whole infrastructure is built.”
Sim, who can speak six languages, including English, Laotian, Khmer, and other indigenous languages, said the farm spans seven hectares and several crops grow there. ‘’The income from these agricultural products is used to support the young poor students. As of now, we are working to transform this farm into an agro-tourism destination to attract people visiting the area,” he said.
Lek Karry, 19, hails from the minority community Brao in the Taveng district of Ratanakiri. In late 2019, she started to become involved in social work, with a focus on education and early marriage issues for women in her community.
‘’During the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, early marriage had been rising among young women in my community,” she said. ‘’There are different reasons for this cause, including their family’s income, social pressure, and their level of education.”
As of now, she said early marriages remain a concern, even though the number of recent marriages has been slowing. ‘’It certainly will bring plenty of consequences in their living to get married at this young age,” she said.
Primary school pupils dropped out at a rate of 6.8 percent in the 2019/2020 academic year, up from 4.4 percent the previous year. The dropout rate for lower secondary school students (grades 7 to 9) has grown from 15.8 percent to 18.6 percent. The 16.9 percent dropout in upper secondary (grades 10-12) remained unchanged.