Celebration of the International Literacy Day 2012: Literacy - Catalyst for Development and Peace in Cambodia
Literacy is a catalyst for development and a force for peace. International Literacy Day, celebrated every September 8, is a good opportunity to assess our progress in pursuing literacy for all and consider the various challenges that lie ahead. This year the international theme is “Literacy for Peace” and in Cambodia, the government has chosen a theme that focuses on the importance of literacy in accelerating national development: “Literacy as a Foundation for Development”.
Improving literacy in Cambodia is essential as literacy equips citizens with skills and confidence to seek out essential information and make informed choices that have a direct impact on their families and communities. Additionally, literacy strengthens mutual understanding by enabling people to share ideas and to express, preserve and develop their cultural identity and diversity.
Some anecdotes from the field show strong evidence of literacy helping people and communities in Cambodia. Ms. Snguon Sophal is a great example of how literacy can support and improve livelihoods. She is a 35-year-old illiterate woman living in Kok Srok village in Siem Reap province, who had to leave primary school in grade 3, as her family was unable to afford her school uniform and other learning materials. However, after participating in literacy classes at a Community Learning Center, supported by the National Federation of UNESCO Association of Japan, her life changed dramatically. Sophal can now read, write and apply her knowledge to her daily life. As she proudly explained, “I can measure the size of clothes for my family and weigh vegetables to sell at a local market. I will never be cheated.” Knowing the importance of education, Sophal strove to become a community preschool teacher, providing help to youth and improving her community, saying “I am not shy anymore and very confident to work for community.” She is now also playing important roles for disseminating information on health and agricultural activities to improve the lives of community members. Sophal’s story, like many others, demonstrates how literacy helps individuals gain knowledge, actively participate in their community, increase self-confidence and have a lasting impact on Cambodian society.
The benefits of a fully literate society are obvious, but the challenges still remain. In Cambodia, the 2008 National Population Census placed the literacy rate of those aged 15 years or older at 77.6%. While this figure is an improvement from the 1998 census-based measurement of 67.3%, the functional literacy rate (defined as a person’s ability to read, write, and calculate for his/her individual or community development) was measured at a mere 37.1% in 1999, suggesting that functional literacy levels could be significantly lower than the self-reported, census-based measurements.
Cambodia’s literacy challenge also lies in reducing disparities in literacy rates among age and gender groups (85.1% among males and 70.9% among females), between urban and rural populations (90.4% and 74% respectively), and among ethnic minorities and those who are the most marginalized. In Ratanakiri, home to a large number of indigenous people who do not speak Khmer, for example, the adult literacy rate is just 45.9%, as illiteracy is more common in remote areas where access to intervention is difficult. More concerning, improvement of literacy rates in Cambodia appears to be slowing, compounded by the fact that a majority of illiterate individuals are members of hard to reach groups such as ethnic minorities, migrants, or people with disabilities. These numbers should act as an urgent call to action for the Cambodian government and development partners to intensify efforts and increase coordination to promote national literacy.
So, what is the country doing to overcome these challenges? The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports has been drafting a national Country Literacy Acceleration Plan under the Capacity Development for Education for All (CapEFA) programme, supported by UNESCO. The plan aims to accelerate literacy improvement in Cambodia towards achieving 2015 Education for All literacy goal by identifying clear priorities and strategies specifically targeted to reach marginalized groups. The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports is currently drafting the plan at the district and provincial level based on 500 maps of illiteracy rates and the number of illiterate individuals for all villages, districts and provinces. Representatives from all provincial and district education offices participated in several capacity building trainings on evidence-based analysis and planning with clear priorities, realistic costing, efficient use of existing resource requirements, and mobilization of partnership. This is the first attempt led by the Ministry for bottom-up planning to respond unmet needs of marginalized groups in communities. UNESCO hopes that Cambodia can set a good example for other Asian countries through this learning experience as we are approaching the 2015 deadline for Education for All targets.
Several new initiatives have also been implemented to accelerate Education for All progress under the UNESCO programme – a pilot project has been developed to establish education information system for Non-Formal Education, needs and capacity assessment. UNESCO has also been working on reactivating weak Community Learning Centers, reviewing policy reviews and establishing coordinating mechanism for Non-formal Education stakeholders.
Promoting literacy as the foundation for lifelong learning will improve Cambodia’s human development and thus have an impact on socio-economic development of the country. UNESCO in Cambodia, in collaboration with the government, development partners and civil society, is working towards accelerating literacy efforts to achieve our hopes for peaceful and sustainable development of Cambodia.