63 Percent Illiteracy Rate Surpasses Forecast

Cambodia suffers from an illiteracy rate much higher than experts had previously estimated, a new survey finds.

The Cambodian Ministry of Youth, Education and Sport, together with Unesco, conducted a nationwide survey of literacy during the past year.

This new survey was far more thorough than past literacy polls—and it has produced far more sobering results.

In 1997, the National Institute of Statistics for the Ministry of Planning reported a national literacy rate of about 66 percent. But according to Sue Fox of Unesco, all past literacy surveys consisted of only “yes” or “no” questions, and relied on people’s own evaluation of their ability to read and write.

The recent Ministry of Edu­cation survey included a reading and a writing test, which was administered to 6,548 adult Cambodians. The survey findings were then based on the performances on these tests.

Functionally literate people make up roughly 37 percent of Cambodia’s adult population, the survey found. The rest are either completely or basically illiterate.

These numbers put Cambodia well behind its neighbors in the region. According to the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2000, Thailand’s literacy rate is 95 percent, Vietnam’s is 92.9 percent, and Laos’s is 46.1 percent.

Despite such monumental literacy problems, the Cambodian government currently devotes only 9 percent of its budget to education. According to the Ministry of Edu­ca­tion, the government expects to raise the budget for education to 15 percent in 2000.

Meanwhile, as much as 45 percent of the national budget goes towards military spending.

“These findings show that the government needs to put more money into investing in the people,” Kao Kim Hourn, Cam­bodian Insti­tute for Cooperation and Peace executive director, said Wednes­­day.

“We cannot develop the country with people who cannot read, cannot write, cannot think,” Kao Kim Hourn said. “We must reduce funding in other areas such as defense and police.”

Overall, the survey showed deep connections between illiteracy and poverty. Farmers, fishers, housewives, laborers and highland minorities are groups with high levels of illiteracy.

The survey went so far as to suggest that the poor and the illiterate are largely the same group of people.

“The government always talks about reducing poverty. If you want to reduce poverty, education is where you need to invest,” Kao Kim Hourn said.

Gender imbalances in the literate population are severe, the survey indicated. It showed that 47.6 percent of Cambodian men are literate, while only about 29 percent of women in Cambodia can read and write.

Of the literate and semi-literate people surveyed, very few  responded correctly to questions about how to prevent getting infected with HIV/AIDS—22.8 percent of men and only 17.6 percent of women.

In general, people aged 25 to 40 had a higher illiteracy rate than other age groups. The survey suggested this is probably because they were deprived of education during the years of civil unrest.

According to the new report, it costs $23 to give one person the six months of education necessary to attain a basic level of literacy.

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