Childhood Development in Cambodia (Part 1) - Education and learning plateaus - EmbraceAbility
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Childhood Development in Cambodia (Part 1) – Education and learning plateaus

Childhood Development in Cambodia (Part 1) – Education and learning plateaus

“Education is a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development.”
Kofi Annan

Any country with endemic levels of poverty faces significant challenges to ensuring childhood development. Cambodia is no exception. More than one third of Cambodians live below the poverty line, fighting to survive on less than $1 a day. Rates of poverty are especially prominent in rural areas, but it is children who are particularly affected by this issue. Constituting over half of the country’s population, it is children whose development and welfare is placed most in jeopardy by poverty.

For EmbraceAbility, education forms the key to child development. We would see all children, irrespective of their wealth, ethnicity, or disability, granted access to education. The right to an inclusive education is fundamental for the full participation and flourishing of children in their communities. With children only eligible for state primary school aged 6 in Cambodia, we would impress the importance of a quality pre-school education, a service deemed extremely beneficial to any individual’s capacity to learn and improve themselves, and the nation as a whole.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)

In response to global concerns for child welfare and the establishment of children’s rights, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and opened it for signature in 1989. Under the convention, any person below the age of 18 is considered a child, unless the ‘age of majority’ is otherwise specified under national law. With 196 of the world’s states party to the convention, it is the most widely ratified treaty in the UN Treaty Body System.

Cambodia’s response to the CRC was encouraging from the start. The state’s 1993 Constitution made room for specific provisions for the protection of human rights, including “the rights of the children as stipulated in the Convention on Children.” Also, a Cambodian National Council for Children was established in 1995 to promote, coordinate, and oversee the implementation of the CRC.

A key part of this treaty outlines the principles of child development – measures by which children should be allowed to grow-up healthy and with a suitable education. As noted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Cambodia’s ability to implement child development initiatives was always going to be slow; a legacy of more than 20 years of armed conflict, genocide, isolation, and political instability had created a very difficult socio-economic situation.

Despite this, the state has made remarkable progress in some of its child healthcare endeavours. In 2000, Cambodia had the fastest growing rate of HIV/AIDS infections in South-East Asia. Health education programmes for adults and children – teaching basic health and sanitation issues – from the Ministry of Health have significantly reduced the number of new infections among children. The alarming increases in HIV infection in women seeking antenatal care (most notably between 1995 and 2005) were successfully reversed due in part to this campaign.

Education and learning plateaus

Cambodia has low rates of school participation and high rates of illiteracy. On the surface, the situation looks to be improving. Enrolments in primary and secondary schools have increased significantly in recent years. The Ministry of Education, working closely with UNICEF Cambodia, is promoting a ‘child-friendly school’ initiative across multiple provinces to improve learning environments and the quality of education, with the aim of encouraging enrolment and retention rates.

However, large increases in primary and secondary enrolments do not necessarily mean there have been equal increases in educational achievement. Drop-out and repetition rates are extremely high. Only half of the children who begin primary school will see it through the end and progress to secondary school. There are various factors that contribute to this low attainment, many stemming from Cambodia’s endemic poverty levels: insufficient qualified teachers, poor quality schools, distance from schools, students incurring direct and indirect costs for schooling such as additional tutoring, books, uniforms, all of which deter student retention. The question is, with limited resources, where should the government be focusing its efforts to improve the success of the state school system?

Studies carried out by UNICEF and the World Bank Group have found that children simply are not prepared for primary education. Cambodia lacks an effective early childhood development system to prepare children for mainstream schooling. Whether this stems from poverty or a misallocation of resources, it is clear that pre-school forms the basis for successful students, and by extension, successful adults that will contribute to a burgeoning and varied workforce. By the time children are eligible to enrol in primary school aged 6, they lack a plethora of skills that will help retain them in education.

The importance of pre-school education and early childhood development

Not only is nurturing early childhood development through education essential for the well-being of the next generation, it can have profound benefits for the state as a whole. The World Bank’s ‘Education Strategy’ emphasises several core ideas – ‘Invest early. Invest smartly. Invest in learning for all.’ This notion divorces itself from the now dated ‘education for all’ as promised by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. As seen in Cambodia, the increase in the number of enrolments has had little effect on plateaued levels of learning, with many being left behind. Growth, development, and poverty reduction all depend on the knowledge and skills that people acquire as part of their education.

Quite rightly, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals reflect this change in our understanding of education and development; Goal 4 advocates ‘quality education’ over simply getting young people into school. Furthermore, Goal 4.2 aims to increase the percentage of children under 5 years of age who are developmentally on track in health, learning and psychosocial well-being. Crucially, early childhood development provides a natural link to other goals, too — including poverty reduction, health and nutrition, women and girls’ equality, and ending violence.

It is this understanding that has driven a collaboration between UNICEF and the World Bank Group that urges national leaders to accelerate action and investments in early childhood development programmes. According to a joint report published in 2015, such programmes are a critical foundation for equitable development and economic growth. According to World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, “Our failure to make the right investments in early childhood development is condemning millions of children to lives of exclusion. We can’t promise to equalize development outcomes, but we can insist on equalizing opportunity.”

To see the benefits of early childhood development programmes in action, a 20-year study in Jamaica showed that disadvantaged young children who were exposed to high-quality early stimulation and education enjoyed a range of positive outcomes. Education retention rates increased among the children involved, resulting in them earning 25 percent higher wages as adults. Poverty levels have fallen in these communities, with sizeable change measured in health and nutrition and the reduction of violence.

At EmbraceAbility, we have heard this message. Our community outreach and education services are available to children from the age of 3 to make sure that we are stimulating minds from the earliest opportunity. For children with disabilities, for whom our services are designed, a strong focus on early childhood development is even more essential in giving them the best possible start in life. We would see every child enjoy equal rights to education and learning, we would see them integrated in an inclusive education, and we would see them achieve their highest potential. In setting an example, EmbraceAbility hopes to demonstrate the importance of evolving the current education system in Cambodia. With a key focus on early childhood learning, Cambodia could see its children flourish, its workforce strengthen, its poverty reduce, and positive change sustained.


by Oliver King, Director of Advocacy