Cambodia Profile

Girls’ education: current challenges in Cambodia

“I am those of the 66 million girls who are deprived of education” – Malala Yousafzai Nobel Lecture, 2014 Peace Prize

When we asked a little girl from the remote village of Prey Dak, in the countryside of Battambang province, what she would like to do in the future, she answered straight away “I want to be a doctor!” Poverty, corruption, lack of schools in rural areas, old stereotypes, cultural norms, and traditions form a non-exhaustive list of factors that could prevent this little girl from reaching her goal…

Notwithstanding the fact that Cambodia has made major progress in offering equal access to education for boys and girls, the country still suffers from a great gender disparity in this sector. Cambodia is in the process of rebuilding its education system, profoundly shattered since the Khmer Rouge regime. It is important to remind here that around 90% of the intellectuals, including teachers, were slaughtered during the Khmer Rouge regime. In spite of the progress made in the past decade, there is still an urgent need to improve the education system and to reach for a system offering equal access to education.

The Cambodian government sees education as a key to achieve “Cambodia’s long-term vision to build a peaceful country with political stability, security and social order, long-term economic growth, sustainable development and equity, improved living standards and reduced poverty.  

Based on data collected yearly by international organizations and the Cambodian Ministry of Education, it appears that boys and girls in Cambodia seem to start school on equal footing in primary education. But reports show that the dropout rate among female students starts to go up with their grade improvement. This phenomenon occurs particularly when female students reach the secondary level. Reports show that the gender gap in primary school in urban and rural areas has considerably been narrowed down, yet the gross enrollment rate is significantly decreasing for female students in lower secondary and upper secondary level.

So what prevents girls from attending school?

Poverty and education are very much interwoven

Children living in urban areas and from middle or upper class families will likely pursue higher education, whereas children from rural areas are likely to come from poor families and will struggle to access education and pursue it to a higher level.

Cambodia is one of the poorest country of Southeast Asia, nonetheless, according to the World Bank in 2014, poverty continues to fall in Cambodia albeit more slowly than in the past. “Health and education remain important challenges and development priorities for Cambodia”.  Although, Cambodia has reached in 2015 the status of lower-middle income economic country, poverty is still widely widespread. (72% of the population lived on less than $3 per day, according to the Asian Development Bank in 2011). Based on the same report, “poverty is overwhelmingly concentrated in rural areas, and the gap appears to be growing”. In 2011, 91% of poor households lived in rural areas, and about 80% of the population lives in rural areas.

Poverty pushes many students out of school as many parents, especially in rural areas, cannot afford the direct and indirect costs related to education due to the rampant corruption even in the educational system. In many cases, teachers demand that students pay extra “remedial classes” in order to complete the curriculum. Although the ministry of education, youth and sports claims that students can have access to education free of charge, in most areas of Cambodia, students still have to pay unofficial fees to enroll in the school. Additionally, enrollment in school represents a loss of earning for a family as while children are at school, they cannot work and financially support the household. Neither can they help their parents in taking care of their younger siblings and the house chores. A survey conducted by the UNICEF in 2012 shows that 36.1% percent of children in the country aged between 5 and 17 works as laborers, with more than 5 percent engaged in “hazardous labor” (See the interview of Nipha)It appears that girls aged 6–17 are more likely than boys to be kept out of school to help with household chores and contribute to family income, indicative of social norms that place a higher value on education of boys.

Traditions, social norms and gender stereotypes prevent young Cambodian girls to get an education

“Both spoken and unspoken rules regarding a woman’s place in the social structure of Cambodia are extremely rigid and unyielding”. In the Cambodian society, customarily, boys are considered more important than girls. (See the interview of Bopha).

This belief is taught from one generation to another and has been largely shaped by the Chbab Srey – sort of Code of Conduct for women – in which, basically, “women are taught to be worthless”.

Girls and women in Cambodia are under great pressure from the society and they are supposed to be under the protection of their families until this responsibility passes onto their husbands. Those old traditions and customs reinforce the idea for most parents that girls do not need an education and that the place for a girl is at home taking care of the younger siblings, the chores and the household until she gets married (See the interview of Kimleng).

The idea that a girl does not need education is even more spread within poor households and in the countryside (See the interview of Sinath). Parents who cannot afford education for all their children will consequently rather choose to send their sons to school than their girls. A survey conducted in 2012 demonstrates that the proportion of females who had never attended school (20.5 per cent) was almost double the number of males (10.9 per cent).

The lack of schooling in rural areas reduces the chance for Cambodian girls to pursue their studies

Unlike in big cities, schools are hard to find in the countryside, especially for lower and upper secondary level. Therefore, children have to travel miles on foot or on bicycles to go to school. Many parents do not allow their children, and especially their daughters, to travel that far on dangerous roads.

In 2016, the Child Protection Unit investigated more than 260 serious crimes against children aged 13 and under in 24 provinces. Rape was, by far, the most common recorded crime, being increased from 167 to 205 within a year with victims as young as two. Even though, most cases reveal that rapes are committed within the victim’s community or the family, the preponderance of rape cases causes parents to worry for their daughters and prevent them from going too far from their sight.  

Moreover, most parents fear that their daughters will start flirting with boys, dating or even having sexual relationships. They rather prefer to keep them close to keep an eye on them.

Poverty, stereotypes and distance to school are amongst the main reasons that keep girls out of school but not only, additional factors have to be taken into consideration, such as, the poor quality of the education provided (See the interviews of Sinath and Kanal), the lack of career opportunities, corruption, the lack of latrines and sanitary facilities and the lack of female teacher for instance.

Unequal access to education puts Cambodian girls at risks

In Cambodia, girls and women are vulnerable and subject to negative social patterns. They are highly oppressed and discriminated by the society.

In Cambodia, many girls living in rural areas and from underprivileged family face pressure to quit school to help their family, or their husband’s families with farming or domestic chores (See the interview of Kosal). This lifestyle exposes them to more vulnerabilities such as complicated pregnancies, domestic violence, and sexual assault; and it also allows poverty to pass from one generation to another more easily. Girls without an education are also at a higher risk of falling into human trafficking (see article on Migration), sexual exploitation, forced labor or early marriage. The Global Economy and Development, Today’s challenges for girls’ education, shows that, “18% of women were married by the age of 18 and 2% of women were married by the age of 15“. (See the interview of Kimleng)   

The gender gap in education and career opportunities impedes the sustainable social development and economic growth of the country

The consequences of the unequal access to education for girls in Cambodia causes a shortage of women leaders in social, economic and political levels in the Cambodian society that perpetuates negative stereotypes of women’s roles (See the interview of Sinath

The lack of access to education for girls, especially in rural areas, impedes the empowerment of Cambodian women and thus the economic growth of the whole country. As Cambodian women are largely deprived of getting a proper education and are considered to be of lower status to men, there are great gender disparities in employment. According to the Gender Equality in the Labor Market in Cambodia report in 2013, conducted by the Asian Development Bank, women will either work in the agricultural or industrial sector. There isn’t much choice for them and they are usually occupying lower positions. Finally, even if 50% of women in Cambodia owned enterprises they usually operate micro and small size enterprises and many sectors still aren’t open from them. Many social norms prevent women from interacting with male business owners and government officials which makes it difficult for women to obtain information, grow their business and get the same treatment than male business owners.

Traditional norms for women constrain their opportunities outside of the household which results in a lower participation of women in the labor market than men and in leadership positions. Moreover, it is difficult for women to find decent job opportunities, social protection and equal paid work which affect their vulnerability.

Gender roles in Cambodia are undergoing significant change. Cambodia is moving fast. Yet, traditions and customs are deeply entrenched in the country and are important obstacles for women to step out of their traditional housewives roles and become leaders in the social, economic and political level of the society. But as we have seen from the interviews, Cambodian women are not victims. They are strong and determined. They know their rights and intend to reclaim them. They are speaking up, and are reshaping their society and their role to play to develop their country.

As many of them have mentioned it, education is key to reach gender equality in any society and empower women. 




Escamilla, Monica. 2011. NGO Education and the Development of Civil Society in Cambodia: Enculturation and Grassroots Post-conflict Reconstruction. Canada: Lambert Academic Publishing.

Mary N. Booth, 2014. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science: Education and Gender in Contemporary Cambodia. Vol. 4, No. 10; August 2014:


UNESCO, The National Education For All Review Report, 2015.

UNESCO, Participation in Education in Cambodia. 

Asian Development Bank, Cambodia country poverty analysis, 2014.

International Labor OrganizationCambodia Labor Force and Child labour Survey, 2012.—asia/—ro-bangkok/—sro-bangkok/documents/publication/wcms_230721.pdf


Cambodia Comment: Gender issue in Cambodia education: The challenges, 2016.


Huffpost, Gina Reiss-Wilchins,Taught to be worthless, 2013.

Phnom Penh Post, Child rape up in 2016.



1 thought on “Girls’ education: current challenges in Cambodia”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s