Indigenous communities in Cambodia are being left out of the country’s overall plan to meet the UN Millennium Development Goal of all children staying in school through 9th grade by the year 2015, officials warned Monday.
Eighteen members of Cambodia’s indigenous communities from six provinces joined more than 40 others in Phnom Penh on Monday for the kickoff of a two-day seminar focusing on the needs and concerns of Cambodia’s ethnic minorities, who predominantly live in the northeastern part of the country.
Many indigenous children in Ratanakkiri province don’t have the chance to attend school and instead focus on working the land, said Sek Sophorn, International Labor Organization national project coordinator, who has studied the needs of minorities in Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces for the last two years.
“Their parents consider education not as important because there aren’t any job opportunities,” he said, adding that while there are 240 villages in Ratanakkiri, only 130 of them have schools.
Sek Sophorn said that less than half of school-age girls in Ratanakkiri were enrolled in 2006 and that only 7.4 percent of the overall population was literate there. “How can the government achieve its education goal if indigenous people don’t have access to education?” he asked.
Hou Taing Eng, undersecretary of state for the planning ministry, said he believes minorities are overlooked because they only comprise 2 percent of Cambodia’s 14 million people. The vast majority of schools are also concentrated in the southern portion of Cambodia, he said, adding that more education would help minority people protect their land.
“When they have low knowledge about what is going on in society, they are more likely to sell their land to other people,” he said.
Plen Poeul, a 59-year-old Phnong villager from Mondolkiri, said illiteracy and land grabbing are threatening the traditions of his people.
“I am illiterate. I don’t want them to be like me. They will have a bright future and be more aware of society,” he said of his fellow villagers. “Rich and powerful people buy our community land. We are worried that we will lose our traditions.”