Literacy in Cambodia has risen sharply over the past decade while the once-formidable literacy gender gap has narrowed considerably, according to the results of the 2008 Census, released earlier this month.
But Cambodia still trails most of its neighbors in Southeast Asia and must grapple with a persistent gap in literacy between old and young citizens, the census results reveal.
Literacy refers to the ability of members of a population over the age of seven to read and write with some comprehension in any language. Taey Kheam, director of the census department, said that his canvassers considered respondents literate if they could read very basic words and sentences.
“Literate people can read and write simple sentences, like ‘Today I want to go to the school,’” he said. “We do not distinguish between a little bit [literate] or a lot. And we do not usually test them. We just ask and they say, ‘Yes, I can read something,’ or ‘No, I cannot.’”
The number of Cambodians who met these criteria rose from 5.78 million to 8.96 million between 1998 and 2008, a growth rate of 55 percent. Now 78.35 percent of Cambodia’s population is literate, as opposed to just 62.8 percent in 1998. Still, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia all have literacy rates over 90 percent, and Cambodia’s is still the lowest in Southeast Asia other than Laos.
In 1998, male literacy rates were significantly higher than female literacy rates across all categories—urban and rural, young and old. Men were literate at a rate of 71 percent, while women lagged behind at 55.35 percent. But women today have been narrowing the gap with their male counterparts: 73.1 percent of women are now literate, compared with 83.99 percent of men.
“Females increased more than men. Sooner or later, the adult female literacy rate will be higher than men,” said Heang Kanol, deputy director-general of the National Institute of Statistics, during the census launch. He explained that girls still take the lead in enrollment in schools despite the fact that, “in general, they have less ability to go to school than boys in rural areas.”
“There is a gender gap still, but compared to 1998 it is better,” Mr Kheam agreed yesterday, attributing the increase in female literacy to the creation of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in 1996.
Still, older Cambodians lag behind the young to a somewhat startling extent. Cambodian youth aged 15 to 24 have an 87.47 percent literacy rate, and men and women of that age read at a roughly equal rate. For those 65 and older, on the other hand, the literacy rate is only 47.89 percent, and the gap between female and male literacy is more than 30 percentage points.
“Old people have a very low rate of literacy because they were born during French colonial times when the situation for education in Cambodia was very limited,” Mr Kheam said. “We had schools only in the urban areas. In remote areas, nothing at all. Most people just studied in the pagoda.”
(Additional reporting by Bethany Lindsay)