The school at Preak Torl village is much like a school in any rural village in Cambodia. The thatched-roof structure stands beside a well, where a steady stream of children come to collect water in plastic containers. Just a few meters away from the concentration of homes that makes up the village center, the schoolroom stands alone in the shade of a row of hills. But in Preak Torl, the hills are made of ton upon ton of dumped rubbish. Each gust of wind blows the foul-smelling, toxic smoke of burning plastic through the open school room. Thousands of flies blacken every desk and bench; few students bother to wipe them away from their arms and faces.
The village is one of many communities perched on the edge of the Stung Meanchey municipal dump site, on the city’s southwestern outskirts. Here in Preak Torl, around 80 families piece together a life from what others have thrown away.
The location is not the only unusual thing about this school. Its students, too, are out of the ordinary: They are all women, who live in the village and whose days are usually spent scavenging for food and recyclable refuse on the dump site.
The school is funded by the French NGO Pour Un Sourire d’Enfant (For the Smile of a Child); classes have been running since November. Around 20 women come to study basic literacy, mathematics and hygiene skills six afternoons a week. They are each given 9-kg of rice a week as an incentive to come to class, to supplement the 2000 riel or so they would make from an hour scavenging on the dump-site. None of them has ever attended school before. As class was due to begin one windy, hot afternoon recently, the women took out notebooks, rulers and pens and looked some listlessly, some expectantly at the blank blackboard. Babies slept in hammocks around the outside of the room as their mothers prepared to study, sitting cross-legged beside them.
Sok Chhim, 17, is the youngest member of the class. She paused at the start of the lesson to breast-feed her bleach-haired one-year-old daughter, whose watery eyes were surrounded by flies. Sok Chhim’s health and beauty have been visibly dimmed by life on the dump: her skin is inflamed and broken, and she coughed quietly while explaining why she comes to class.
“I want to learn more so I can get work at a garment factory,” she said. “They won’t hire me unless I can read and write.”
Large Nar, a small, tidy woman all dressed in green, sat at the front of the class, absent-mindedly swatting flies on the desk with her ruler. “I could never afford to go to school when I was a child, because my family was too poor,” the 32 year-old said. “I just started learning, and I enjoy it, because I hope it can change my life in the future.”
Un Phy, who at 42 is the class oldest member, sat silently as her classmates discussed the new experience of learning. Eventually, in a quiet, hesitant voice, she said “I enjoy learning because it helps me know right from wrong. Before, I understood nothing.”
“I was persecuted by my first husband,” she continued. “He would try to take money from me, and if I refused to give it to him, he beat me. So we divorced, and I married again. But my next husband was jealous and often punished me physically. He beat me whenever he got drunk.” Now, Un Phy lives alone with her five children, and her husband has a new wife.
Anna Paula Crespi is responsible for the women’s school project, and is frequently confronted by the issue of domestic violence among the students in her care. She sees the link between education and a better future for these women as indisputable. “The aim of the project is not specifically directed toward domestic violence,” she said, “but it’s all related.”
“A couple of months ago, none of these women could write their names,” she explained. “Now, many of them can read educational matter about HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, anything. Education can be nothing but a good thing for them.”
Just a few meters past the schoolhouse Pouv Khem, 34, was squatting in front of her dilapidated hut with her eight-year-old son. She had been absent from school on this afternoon, and as she pulled a krama away from her face to talk, it became clear why. Her left cheekbone was badly bruised and swollen from a recent blow. Clearly still shaken, her face struggled to keep its composure as she recounted what had happened.
“My husband never beat me before last night,” she said. “He just used to break things and punch the walls when he got angry with me. He asks me for money for wine, and when I say I don’t have any, he gets angry.”
“I cannot go to class today because I feel so embarrassed in front of my classmates. I have no feeling to go anyway because my husband always troubles me there. He comes into the classroom and insults me in front of everyone, shouting and joking.”
Her face broke into a bright smile when asked why her eight-year-old son does not share her husband’s name.
“I gave him a different family name because I don’t want him to belong to my husband,” she said, laughing.
Research conducted by the Project Against Domestic Violence in 2000 found that one in four Cambodian women had experienced some kind of economic, psychological, sexual or physical abuse from their spouse.
PADV held an afternoon’s workshop at the Pour Un Sourire d’Enfant center last month. Around 400 women who live on and around the dump site gathered to hear NGO representatives” information and advice, and to share their experiences of violence in the home.
Although a handful of women gave disturbing testaments of lives haunted by spousal abuse, the atmosphere of the group seemed unsupportive, with many women reacting to the topic with evasion, embarrassment or laughter.
According to Liz Giles, an adviser at the Project Against Domestic Violence, acceptance of violence between a husband and wife is ingrained in most Cambodian minds. “There’s even a saying for it: “Plates in a basket will rattle,” she said.
But she, too, concedes that education for both sexes has the potential to change this.
“You can’t solve something that you don’t perceive as a real problem. It doesn’t occur to most women to seek help. But education is empowering. It can remind women of their rights, that domestic violence shouldn’t be an accepted part of life.”
There is no evidence to suggest that the incidence of domestic violence is higher than average among communities living on the dump-site. But it is clear that the ingredients of family discord are present in abundance in communities like Preak Torl.
“Poverty exacerbates the potential for domestic violence,” Giles said. “Issues of control and feelings of powerlessness are generally the chief motivations, especially when combined with social disintegration, such as drinking, gambling, second wives and so on. These factors are bound to be more common in an area of such abject poverty as Stung Meanchey.”
In Preak Torl, there can be little doubt that any feelings of control its residents may ever have had over their lives have long vaporized, along with the smoke from the burning rubbish that constantly blows around them.
But in the women’s school, there is a sense that some students are starting to glimpse a future beyond the dump-site, and are gaining the confidence to effect the changes needed to leave.
Extreme poverty and precarious domestic situations define their lives in the present, but with even a basic education, these women may be armed for a better future.