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Handle with C.A.R.E

Education is now possible for even the poorest ethnic minorities of Cambodia, thanks to a humanitarian aid organisation dedicated to breaking the poverty cycle. MiNDFOOD reports.

For four months of the year, 
food can become so scarce in the highlands of Cambodia’s north-east that survival becomes a far higher priority than going to school, and families are forced to spend their days searching the forests near their villages for enough 
edible plants and berries to sustain them.

Ratanakiri province is one of the poorest areas in Cambodia, and the potential for malnourishment and poor health due to lack of food is real here. Local villager Chana Roun and her daughter would spend much of the day in the ‘hungry months’ walking kilometres from home to look for food, often returning with very little for the family to eat.

But in a success story worth shouting about, CARE Australia’s commitment for the past 10 years means families in this impoverished part of the world are gaining the knowledge and resources they need to establish and tend their own crops and gardens. They not only have enough to eat, but by selling produce at local markets, they can also generate enough income to buy other essentials.

Roun looks with satisfaction over her flourishing home garden. “I’m very happy that we have enough food to eat … it helps my family a lot,” she says. “We have more to eat, and also have income from selling vegetables, so we can buy food for cooking.”

Farmers are being trained in new harvesting techniques and how to use cashews to make goods, such as jelly and wine. Learning how to better store rice also allows communities to maximise the chance of it lasting until the next season.

With food in their bellies and a little more money in their pockets, families such as Roun’s can focus on giving their kids the education they themselves missed out on. “Now our children can go to school because we have the garden and we can collect 
food easily. We can also get income to buy things for them so they can go to learn.”


With education comes a dramatic improvement in the control villagers have over their own future, and in the positive contributions they are able to make to their own families and others in the community. Educating women and girls, in particular, provides the single highest return on investment in the developing world, according to CARE. “Help one woman out of poverty and she’ll bring four others with her,” explains CARE Cambodia country director Stav Zotalis. Cambodia has high rates of maternal, infant and child mortality, with a continued prevalence of malaria, tuberculosis and HIV, all of which can be minimised through basic education.

Women in Cambodian families traditionally handle most household 
tasks, and girls are expected to share the load by taking on chores that would be considered well beyond their age in Australia, such as washing clothes, collecting water, cleaning the house and working at nearby farms or rice fields.

Their culture also assumes that daughters will look after younger siblings while their parents are out working in the fields, and many girls have to drop out of school to babysit once they reach grade one or two. However, this culture is slowly shifting, as parents recognise 
the importance of education, and 
CARE has set up seven early childhood development centres in Ratanakiri to facilitate the change. The centres look 
after children up to age six, and prepare them with the basic social and educational skills to start school through games, singing, drawing and storytelling.


Being unable to attend school isn’t the only obstacle for children trapped in poverty through lack of education. The sole language of instruction in government-run Cambodian schools is the national one, Khmer, which the majority of the people living in the north-eastern provinces don’t speak or understand. 

“We had a schoolhouse, but no teachers came to teach here, so nobody could read or write. All the children worked on the farm,” explains a grade five teacher in the indigenous village of Lung Khung, where the native language is Tampuen. Twenty-two-year-old Tving Sen from Paor Village in Lung Khun Commune, known by his students as Mr Sen, is one of the first to undergo CARE’s teacher training program, and is bringing bilingual education to the indigenous children of Cambodia for the first time.

“The Tampuen children cannot speak the Khmer language, but they can learn it and then learn to read and write in the national language. It is very important for the Tampuen minority. Now they can write in Khmer, and some children go on to secondary school, which is a big change for them. I hope all children in my village finish the community school and go to high school. After that, they can get a good job.”

CARE established six community-run schools for 280 kids in Ratanakiri in 2002 so they could learn in their own language as well as Khmer. The first year of school, for example, is taught almost entirely in their own language, with Khmer slowly mixed 
in over three years until, by the third year, almost all teaching is done in Khmer.

The model has been a resounding success, despite initial government scepticism on the capacity of ethnic minorities to 
be educated. The government has now committed funding from its own budget to expand it to 30 schools in five north-eastern Cambodian provinces, and two new indigenous languages have been added. “It’s now part of the country’s formal education system, which is very exciting,” Zotalis says.

As well as teacher training programs, CARE has set up secondary schools and develops bilingual teaching materials with the help of local communities and staff.

Thong Lean Thavy, 27, was among the first teachers to work in one of CARE’s pilot bilingual schools, despite never having been to school herself. She was 19 years old when village elders nominated her for teacher training, and trading her work in the rice fields for a job in the classroom was initially daunting. “When I was young, the village was very dirty and not so happy. Many people could not read or write, and there was no place to study,” she says.

“Now, I’m very happy and proud that I became a teacher. I use my salary to buy medicine, clothes and kitchen materials, and to support my family. I hope the girls in my class are happy to become teachers too.” 

Thavy says the chance for students to be schooled in both languages is invaluable. “Because we want to keep our tradition, it’s important to speak our native language, Kreung. But the children need to know Khmer in order to go outside the village.”

It is still a challenge for kids in some remote rural areas to get to school, so CARE has set up scholarships to allow students to study and stay in boarding houses within secondary schools. Those scholarship recipients who do live close enough to be able to travel home are given a bicycle and rain gear. Scholarship winner Sophal*, who stays in a boarding house, is determined to study to help her community. Instead of travelling hours to and from school, and spending what little time she does have at home doing chores, she reads and studies alongside her peers after class. “When I finish school, I would like to be a teacher in my village,” she says, beaming.


While Cambodia has seen steady economic growth since the ’90s, it has also led to a growing divide between urban and rural, rich and poor. “Among the rural poor, these rapid politico-economic transitions have disproportionately excluded the country’s indigenous ethnic minority groups,” Zotalis says. “They are linguistically and culturally distinct from the Khmer majority, so highland minority groups have faced social exclusion from basic social development services, like education and health.”

And because of commercial interests in timber, forest rights and traditional livelihood systems are under threat. While the development of an economic triangle linking Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam may offer some opportunities for indigenous ethnic minorities in terms of access to goods and services, Zotalis says that some fear these transitions will undermine local livelihoods among isolated communities.

Increasing foreign investment has been speeding up development in Cambodia and, instead of its traditional system of barter, the marginalised and formerly isolated provinces of the country are now part of the cash economy. Road improvements mean the capital, Phnom Penh, and other employment centres are also more accessible for remote villagers. The trip from Ratanakiri to Phnom Penh, for example, now takes eight hours instead of 36.

“What that means is that the money economy is now reality for communities in Ratanakiri,” Zotalis says. “With the bilingual education model, we’re trying 
to retain the native language, but 
introduce Khmer, which is the language 
of commerce, and the language they need to use in economic and political life.”


Although she never planned to dedicate her life to helping people escape the poverty cycle, the seed was sown early in Stav Zotalis’s life. She grew up listening to her dad tell stories of not having enough to eat as a child. His father was killed when he was eight and his mum was left with eight children to raise alone. Hunger was part of daily life until her dad 
left home to work in a restaurant.

When she later discovered that a large proportion of the world’s people spend their days hungry too, she traded in her work with an insolvency company for a more meaningful vocation. “Having enough to eat is such a fundamental thing,” she says.

After working with AusAID in Canberra for nine years, she joined CARE Australia in Bangladesh for four years. She has been working in Cambodia for the past 12 months. Zotalis lives in Phnom Penh and travels to the poorest parts of the country to monitor CARE’s work at least once a month. She sees firsthand the difference bilingual schooling is making to the lives of ethnic minorities in Ratanakiri. “The Government is now committed to taking it to more provinces and introducing more languages, which is quite phenomenal,” she says.


Want to do your bit? Visit CARE Australia ( to become a
monthly donor, or you could even volunteer at one of the organisation’s
overseas offices. Check the Vacancies section on CARE’s website for

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