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The Education System in Cambodia and its Relationship with Child Labor 

CLEC - 2010-08-30



1) Introduction to the Issue: Child Labor and Education

Education is a key element in the prevention of child labor; at the same time, child labor is one of the main obstacles to Education for All (EFA). Understanding the interplay between education and child labor is therefore critical to achieving both EFA and child labor elimination goals. Child labor in any form, but most especially the hazardous physical labor that children in the rural areas and factories often undertake, severely harms a child's ability to firstly enter, and subsequently to survive once in the education system. Furthermore, working in either a family or non-family environment whilst also attempting to regularly attend school means that the child who is trying to combine both work and study and will benefit far less from the academic instruction available to him or her resulting in a higher risk of leaving school early.

This report aims to illustrate how child labor impedes a child's ability to enter and survive in the school system, and makes it more difficult for a child to derive educational benefit from school once in the system. With regard to the link between education provision and child labor, the research conducted for this report hopes to convey the severity of the detrimental role of inadequate schooling in keeping children out of the classroom and in work. There is evidence to suggest that both the quality and access to schooling are primary factors in household decisions concerning whether to invest in children's human capital by sending them to school.

The international community's efforts to achieve Education for All (EFA), which is a UNESCO program that consists of six internationally agreed education goals aimed to meet the learning needs of children, youth and adults by 2015 and the progressive elimination of child labor are inextricably linked. There is a broad acknowledgement that one of the most effective and full-proof ways to prevent school-aged children from entering the work force is to improve access to education. That way, the families that up until now need their children to work in order to survive financially will instead be able to invest in their children's education and eventually see that the results of such an investment are far more beneficial in the long run than those associated with child labor.

It must be also noted that essentially, child labor is the main obstacle to fully achieving the goal of EFA as work is in direct competition with education. Child labor is the major obstacle to secure education for all: there is simply not enough time to do both, and moreover, the physical and emotional strain on children due to their work in the agricultural or business sector is a severe hindrance to their ability to perform academically. Furthermore, high levels of child labor translate on a general basis into large numbers of out-of-school children which in turn means lower overall attendance rates and a slower process in attaining basic education for all. Child labor therefore adversely affects the academic achievement of the considerable number of children who combine work and school, often resulting in these children leaving school prematurely and entering into work for want of money.

By examining the relationship between school non-enrolment and child labor, the UCW report on Child Labor and Education for All uses a very useful description to explain the two main reasons why children are often led into the workforce rather than the classroom. To cite the report, "the direction of causality is not always apparent. In some cases, children are "pushed" into work by poor quality, irrelevant or inaccessible schools, while in other cases children are "pulled" from school and into work by household poverty or other economic motives. The policy implications of this distinction are clear: where "push" factors prevail, supply-side policy measures targeting the school system hold particular promise for reducing child labor; where "pull" factors are relevant, demand-side policy measures targeting the household are also needed for an effective response to child labor."

2) Historical Context & Cultural Background

In an attempt to rebuild a new Cambodia with new revolutionary men and women, the Khmer Rouge set out to eradicate the old elements of Cambodia's society, including the old education system. Like their Maoist counterparts in China, the Khmer Rouge leaders emphasized manual labor and political correctness over knowledge. They claimed "rice fields were books, and hoes were pencils." As such, Cambodia did not need an educational system. The Khmer Rouge leaders deliberately destroyed the foundations of a modern education. People with higher education such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, and former college students were killed or forced to work in labor camps. The Khmer Rouge also engaged in the physical destruction of institutional infrastructure for higher education such as books, buildings, and other educational resources. It is estimated that by the end of the Khmer Rouge time, between 75 and 80 percent of Cambodian educators either were killed, died of overwork, or left the country. At least half of the written material available in the Khmer language was destroyed.

After coming to power with Vietnamese help in 1979, the government of the PRK attempted to redevelop the education system. Although significant progress was made, the process of educational redevelopment was hampered by war and lack of resources, human as well as material. The PRK government undertook a massive rehabilitation program aimed at enrolling as many students as possible. The slogan of the time was "those who know more teach those who know less." Those with almost any level of education were encouraged to work as teachers, and efforts were made to identify and encourage formers teachers, professors, and bureaucrats in the field of education to participate in this difficult endeavor. Potential teachers were given short-term training for one month, three weeks or even two weeks and then assigned teaching jobs. With many buildings destroyed, classes were taught in shacks made of leaves with dirt floors or in some places instruction was given outside under the trees. Given the enormity of destruction caused by the Khmer Rouge regime, one could see significant progress in the field of education during the 1980s. From an empty handed position, the PRK government was able to reestablish a semblance of an educational system from pre-school to university. A number of students were offered scholarships by host countries in the former Soviet block to pursue higher education.

Because the PRK government was engaged in fighting a civil war with the Khmer Rouge and other two non-communist resistant movements the field of education was not given much priority. With budgetary constraints, the need for manpower to serve in the army, and a centrally planned economy, the PRK government set limits on the number of students who could enter into upper secondary school, and universities. Such restrictions generated widespread corruption, favoritism, and nepotism within the educational system as wealthy and influential parents either paid bribes or used their political power to secure seats for their children in these institutions. Such practices, compounded by low skill level of educators, significantly slowed the development of the educational system. 1Under this system that emphasized quantity over quality, and given the destruction of the DK regime, it is easy to understand why literacy rates for Cambodia are quite low. New research conducted in 2000, which actually administered writing exercises rather than allowing self-identification as readers, found that literacy levels for the country were lower than previously estimated. The report divided the respondents into three groups: the complete illiterate (36.3 %), the semi-literate (26.6 %) and the literate (37.1 %). The latter were further divided into those with a basic level of literacy (11.3 %), with a medium level (64 %) and a self-learning level (those who read all kinds of materials in search of new knowledge) (24.7 %). Combining the first two categories of illiterate and semi-literate, this means that 62.9 percent of the adult population of Cambodia, or 6.5 million people, are basically illiterate (MEYS 2000). Low levels of literacy, and education in general, can impede the economic development of a country in the current rapidly changing, technology-driven world.

3) Education as a Human Right


The Child's right to an education is universal and indisputable thanks to several key pieces of legislation. Being deprived of this right is one of the most important factors that perpetuates the cycle of child labor.

Education is a fundamental human right: every child is entitled to it. It is critical to our development as individuals and as societies, and it helps pave the way to a successful and productive future. By ensuring that children have access to a rights-based, quality education that is rooted in gender equality, a ripple effect of opportunity is created that impacts generations to come. It ends generational cycles of poverty and disease and provides a foundation for sustainable development.

Moreover, a quality basic education better equips girls and boys with the knowledge and skills necessary to adopt healthy lifestyles and take an active role in social, economic and political decision-making as they transition from adolescence to adulthood. Educated adults are more likely to have fewer children, to be informed about appropriate child-rearing practices and to ensure that their children start school on time and are ready to learn. In addition, a rights-based approach to education can address some of societies' deeply rooted inequalities. These inequalities condemn millions of children, particularly girls, to a life without quality education - and, therefore, to a life of missed opportunities.2In 1989, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The CRC is a universally agreed set of non-negotiable standards and obligations relating to human rights, especially for children. According to the UN Convention on the rights of the Child, children (persons from the age of 18 and below) are entitled to a variety of specific rights that are particular to them as they fall under a category deemed especially in need of extra protection. Along with education, many advocates of children's rights recognize that the child has the right to nutrition, protection and development. Several important aspects of the convention are stipulated below.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child

Some of the highlights of the Convention include:

  • A child's right to life;
  • Decisions that affect children should be based on their best interests;
  • Protection for children from physical or mental harm and neglect;
  • A child's right to the highest attainable standard of health;
  • Free and compulsory education for all children;
  • Children shall have time to rest and play and equal opportunities for cultural and artistic activities;
  • Protection for children from economic exploitation;
  • All efforts shall be made to eliminate the abduction and trafficking of children;
  • No child under 15 shall take any part in hostilities or conflict; and children of minority and indigenous populations shall freely enjoy their own culture, religion and language.

Since the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, there has been considerable progress made with regards to securing a basic education for all children on a global scale. There are, none the less, problems that still remain to hinder progress, particularly in countries that suffer from extreme poverty or economic challenges. Cambodia is one of those countries. Unfortunately, however, this convention was not enough to illicit any real change from many of the countries that were most in need of it.

UNESCO provided technical assistance to the national authorities of Cambodia in creating the "Draft Education Law of Cambodia". Modifications were introduced in line with international legal obligations following UNESCO recommendations and keeping EFA (Education for All) as a priority. Following a comprehensive review, improvements in the draft were suggested including sections on the principles and norms of the right to education and rights and responsibilities of teachers, parents, learners and the community.

Technical and vocational education, non-formal education and literacy for empowerment were also covered. Emphasis was placed upon quality basic education and equality of educational opportunity including providing basic education for street children, ensuring gender equity and positive measures in favor of marginalized groups, ethnic communities and children from poor households.

Child Labor has recently become an extremely sensitive issue for Cambodia. The exploitation of children under the age of 18 for economic gain is prevalent still, in spite of numerous attempts from the government, stakeholders, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO's) and the United Nations to try to quell the rising tide of underage youths being forced for financial and social reasons into dangerous and dead-end employment.

The sensitivity of the issue lies in the conflict of interest between employers of working children and advocates of the ILO Convention 182. Thus, any attempt to visit or to ask directly about the number of child workers on specific sites is likely to face negative reactions from those employers who favored child labor. The number of children actually seen is likely to underestimate the reality as child workers may be warned in advance not to come. The non-cooperation from employers is not unexpected, but it does however render investigating the extent to which child labor is still practiced in Cambodia more difficult to carry out with complete accuracy.

UNESCO provided technical assistance to the national authorities of Cambodia in creating the "Draft Education Law of Cambodia". Modifications were introduced in line with international legal obligations following UNESCO recommendations and keeping EFA (Education for All) as a priority. Following a comprehensive review, improvements in the draft were suggested including sections on the principles and norms of the right to education and rights and responsibilities of teachers, parents, learners and the community. Technical and vocational education, non-formal education and literacy for empowerment were also covered. Emphasis was placed upon quality basic education and equality of educational opportunity including providing basic education for street children, ensuring gender equity and positive measures in favor of marginalized groups, ethnic communities and children from poor households.

Children in Cambodia continue to work in exploitive plantations, in salt production, in fish processing, as porters, in brick making, in the service sector and as garbage pickers. They also work in occupations that are determined by the Government (under the guidelines of the Convention 132) as being hazardous, including processing sea products, such as shrimp; breaking, quarrying or collecting stones; working in gem and coal mining; working in garment factories; working in restaurants; and making handicrafts. Children work as domestic servants; most child domestics are girls of 15-17 years, who work between 6 and 16 hours per day.

Moreover, the Cambodian Labor Law sets the minimum age for wage employment at 15 years. However, it also concedes that children are permitted to do 'light work' from the age of 12 on the condition that the work is not hazardous to their health or mental and physical development and will not affect their regular school attendance or vocational training approved by a competent authority. This is reinforced by the ILO Convention 138 that states that children under the age of 18 are not permitted to work in dangerous environments.7 This declaration apparently sets limits on the working hours of children from the age of 12-15 years: 7 hours maximum on non-school days and 4 hours on school days between the hours of 6 and 8pm. Considering the fact that child labor is still today ubiquitous in Cambodia, one must question to what extend these measures are effective.

Furthermore, Convention 182 calls for the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labor, as well as child labor that violates rights to a child's development. Among other things, the Convention "recognized that child labor is to a great extent caused by poverty and that the long-term solution lies in sustained economic growth leading to social progress, in particular poverty alleviation and universal education." It also makes a point of "recalling the Convention on the Rights of the Child adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 20 November 1989." In Article 3, the Convention also specified the term, "the worst forms of child labor" which goes as follows:

 (a) all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labor, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict;

(b) the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances;

(c) the use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs as defined in the relevant international treaties;

(d) work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.

Furthermore, in Section C of Article 7, the Convention states that each member must, "ensure access to free basic education, and, wherever possible and appropriate, vocational training, for all children removed from the worst forms of child labor" which is a step the ILO deem crucial for the ending of Child labor.



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