Why Cambodia

Filling a Vital Need

Cambodia is still recovering from the genocide in 1975-1979 that killed over a third of its population and almost all of its educated class. It is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, with an average income of $1,390 per person (World Bank, 2018).  About 90% of the poor live in the countryside. While Cambodia achieved in 2009 the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving poverty, the vast majority of families who escaped poverty did so by a small margin. Around 4.5 million of the country’s population of 16.2 million remain near-poor, vulnerable to falling back into poverty when exposed to economic and other external shocks.

Health and education remain important challenges and development priorities.  While net enrollment in primary education increased from 82% in 1997 to 97% in 2016, lower secondary completion rates, at 57% in 2017, are significantly below the average for lower middle-income countries. (World Bank, 2019). Data collected by various international organizations and the Cambodian Ministry of Education shows that boys and girls in Cambodia start primary education at equal rates. However, reports show that the dropout rate for female students increases with each grade. Although the gender gap is continuing to narrow, the gross enrollment rate decreases for female students in both the lower and upper secondary levels.

For the small percentage of girls who complete secondary education, continuing on to university presents enormous challenges.  Families often do not want their daughters to leave their villages for education in the big cities, preferring them to follow a known path of working in the rice fields, helping with domestic chores, studying locally to get a teaching certificate.  Most of Cambodia’s universities are located in the capital, Phnom Penh, where there are no dormitories for women. Men from poor rural families often live free in the Buddhist pagodas or safely rent apartments. However, most women are barred from higher education due to lack of access to safe and affordable housing. For these reasons, only one-third of Cambodians studying past the high school level are women.

“Harpswell Foundation is a U.S.-based NGO that offers talented young women from the provinces an opportunity to help themselves and their community by assisting them with education, housing, and leadership training. The women of Harpswell are studying at some of Cambodia’s best universities, and the first graduates of the program are already going on to do amazing things in Cambodia and beyond.” – William Todd, Former US Ambassador to Cambodia