Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Cambodian Catch-22

The new school year has begun or is about to begin. As always, each year students need to register for their new classes. High school student Srey Lea (that ubiquitous name for Cambodian girls) wanted to change school from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh as her grandparents who had raised her had moved there. She was quite astonished to learn, however, that the new school would charge her about $150. She would also have needed to get her transcripts from the old school, which of course would have cost some more money. It goes without saying that she didn’t have it. So in the end she stayed in Siem Reap and will finish her senior year there.

Srey Lea is the younger of two children. At age 30, her father died of liver cirrhosis when she was 3 or 4. Needless to say, they were poor, and the mother was left to fend for herself and her two young children. Her mother remarried shortly thereafter and had five more children with her second husband over the next 15 years. Srey Lea and her older brother were then raised by the grandparents as the mother could not handle that many children, not to mention she and her second husband didn’t have any money either and lived hand to mouth. Actually, they were their adoptive grandparents as they had adopted the mother when she was age 8. For all intents and purposes her mother abandoned them.

When Srey Lea graduates from high school, which will cost her money again for the diploma, she won’t have the approximately $200 it costs per semester to go to college. Her path is marked for her. She will either get married right out of high school, have children, or will get a low-paying job as a waitress, seamstress at a garment factory, or similar. She is poor so is not considered a good catch by eligible young man. Consequently, she will probably get married to someone with a similar background. Her grandparents, without money or income themselves, who found shelter with their niece, can’t be of help any more either.

Can Srey Lea break out of that poverty cycle? Not likely. She is trapped in that vicious cycle of poor people all over the world. First, her parents were poor and uneducated; consequently, had no idea of birth control; they just kept on having babies although they couldn’t even feed their children. This left Srey Lea without the means to better her own fate. Only a better education would have gotten her out of that cycle. So she will also be poor and, despite her high school education, mostly ignorant about family planning. More likely than not, she will follow in the footprints of her mother.

This is the malaise that still besets Cambodia today. Children are born into poor families, and despite their own best efforts, they have no options of finding a way out of poverty. This can only change if they will not have to worry about school fees or money for textbooks. Public schools are free of charge officially, but teachers’ pay is so low they are dependent on unofficial ‘contributions’ from parents. This can amount to about $20 to $30 a month, plus fare for a motodup if the school is a not within walking distance. Parents in the cities are looking at about $60 a month just to send their children to school. It is self-evident many cannot afford this on an income of $160 or so a month. Hence, there is still a rather high share of children who leave school after four or five grades, if that at all. This is the dire truth and, unfortunately, this means social progress will be very slow in materializing.