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Multilingual education

While the Khmer ethnolinguistic population represents around 90% of the country's inhabitants, several minority groups of different ethnicities, traditions and religions also live in the country. Among them, the Muslim Cham minority accounts for 1-2% of the population.

Today, most members of this religious minority live in poor and often isolated villages in the provinces of Tboung Khmum, Batdambang, Kampong Thum, Kampong Cham and Pouthisat. The Cham have their own traditions and beliefs, as well as their own language.

Minority children, particularly at risk of dropping out of school

In Cambodia, a challenge persists: drop-out and repetition rates in the early years of primary and secondary school are high, while enrollment rates are particularly low. Drop-out rates are highest among children from vulnerable groups, particularly ethnic minorities.

The high number of out-of-school children is closely linked to several factors:

  • unequal access to school,

  • informal costs for families,

  • internal migration of families for professional reasons,

  • lack of vocational training and remedial or second-chance programs.

But for children from ethnic minorities, new challenges are added. School drop-out rates among these vulnerable groups are also due to the language barrier. Within these vulnerable groups, children face many difficulties; they are more likely to suffer from poverty, gender inequality, disability and to live in isolated rural areas.

Such obstacles push many of these children to drop out of school. However, once they reach adulthood and seek employment, many struggle to find decent jobs because they have not been able to obtain the academic qualifications and skills required, condemning them to low incomes.

Multilingual education, a solution to facilitate school integration for Cham children

The Cambodian Consortium for Out-of-School Children (CCOOSC) is a collaborative project between Khemara and Action Education (AE), funded by Educate A Child and implemented by AE. The main objective of the project is to help marginalized and out-of-school children gain access to equitable, quality and relevant primary education.

Khemara implements the project in the Tbong Khmum region, working to remove economic and language barriers to facilitate access to school for out-of-school children.

One of the main reasons behind the high number of out-of-school children in Cham communities is the language barrier.

The Cham language is considered "vigorous" according to the EGID (Expanded Grade Intergenerational Disruption) scale. This means that it is a language commonly used for oral and written communication by all generations, and that its situation is sustainable.

When enrolling in Cambodian public schools, Cham-speaking children face difficulties adapting to the Khmer curriculum.

To ensure that these students can successfully transition to a curriculum taught exclusively in the Khmer language, Khmer teachers and Cham assistant-teachers work together to create classroom learning materials and use them to facilitate the children's education.

"The odds of low performance in literacy and math among students who speak a minority language at home are more than twice as high as among students who speak Khmer at home." SITAN, UNICEF Cambodia (2023)

So, for Khemara, setting up this multilingual program is an effective way to ensure that Cham students are able to acquire knowledge much more quickly, and that their participation and attendance rates at school remain high over the years.

Multilingual education is an effective tool for adapting education to children who speak a minority language. Khemara's project aligns with the objectives of the Cambodian Ministry of Education's National Action Plan for Multilingual Education 2019-2023, which aim to encourage the enrolment of minority children, reduce dropout rates caused by language barriers, but above all guarantee equitable access for all to education services, improve the quality and relevance of learning, and provide efficient and flexible education services.

Beyond a multilingual program, providing access to education for all

Khemara aims to encourage and increase access to, and participation in, quality education for children from rural populations via awareness-raising and remedial programs, and from the Cham religious minority via language transition.

The end of 2023 saw an expansion of Khemara's project from 15 to 30 schools. Of the 30 schools benefiting from the project, 11 offer a multilingual curriculum for a total of 12 first grade classes. In collaboration with the Ministry of Education, Khemara organized the training of Cham assistant teachers, who were then successfully hired to work in the 12 multilingual classes. These assistant teachers are key players in ensuring a gradual and effective transition from Cham to Khmer, so that Cham children can quickly reach the same level as other pupils.

In the first half of 2023, Khemara welcomed the enrolment of 334 Cham students, and the organization expects these figures to increase for 2024.

In the 30 schools benefiting from the project, remedial classes are set up by Khemara, designed with school principals, taught by school teachers and adjusted to suit children's schedules and Cham religious practices. Children with learning difficulties benefit from special educational support, not only to stop them from dropping out of school, but also to prevent them from repeating a year.

During the 2022-2023 school year, 763 pupils were able to access these remedial classes, including 434 of previously unschooled and newly enrolled children.

Finally, Khemara is committed to eliminating all obstacle preventing children from attending school, whether those obstacles are linguistic, financial or geographical. To answer these many challenges, Khemara provides in-kind support to children in the form of study supplies and transportation.

In the first half of 2023, 484 children benefited from in-kind support, while 50 new enrollees received scholarships in the form of bicycles worth $50, facilitating their access to schools. With the extension of our project to 15 new schools in December 2023, Khemara is also able to provide the 375 newly enrolled students with in-kind support of $11 each, including school materials such as a satchel, clothes, books and pens.

Looking forward?

Over the next few years, Khemara intends to continue implementing these actions. It's a project that our organization's director particularly cares about, one that continues to grow, and whose positive results can already be witnessed by communities and shown by their active participation.

Giving children the means to empower themselves by providing them equal access to adapted and quality educational services is one of Khemara's guiding principles, which perfectly aligns with the NGO's purpose: to enable everyone, even the most isolated and vulnerable, to recognize their rights and assert their potential, so as to be able to participate fully in social development.

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