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Ms. Ngek Youm, 59, rides her motorbike about twelve kilometers from her home to the village, first crossing the river and then riding through rice fields before finally reaching the villager’s houses. Her destination is Boeng Khek Village in Peam Mean Chey Commune in Prey Veng Province – located in the southeast of Cambodia near the border with Vietnam. Ms. Youm would always get dirty while riding along the muddy road during the raining season, or become covered in dust during the hot dry season. However, Ms. Youm was not too concerned about the dirt.
As a member of the Commune Committee for Women and Children (CCWC), one her biggest concerns has been the education of the children in Peam Mean Chey Commune. For years, she has struggled to improve children’s education in the community.
“I really wanted children in my commune to receive better education, but I did not know how and what to do,” explained Ms. Youm. “Moreover, my villagers did not care about it as well.”
Most people in Boeung Khek Village never finished school because income generation activities take precedent over education for many families in the area. Many parents migrate to find work elsewhere, and leave their children with grandparents or other relatives. Small children can be seen running around unsupervised.
“Villagers here did not care about teaching or stimulating their children’s minds at a young age. They thought it was the teacher’s responsibility when the children start school,” explained Ms. Youm. “As a result, drop-out and repetition rates were high and I really wanted to help.”
In 2014, with funding support from Prudence Foundation, Save the Children and partners began working closely with the Provincial Office of Education in Prey Veng to implement the First Read project. The project aims to raise awareness of parents and caregivers about the importance of early childhood care and development, especially through the practice and habit of reading books, and other cognitively stimulating activities for young children. During the implementation, we established mother groups and provided a series of trainings to the groups. Many of these trainings showed them how to teach their children valuable lessons through daily activities at home. Once the core group members fully understood the lessons and practices, they became the teachers and began cascading the information to other parents.
Although she wanted to help the villager’s children to learn, Ms. Youm still encountered many challenges. The distances she had to travel was one; some days she would drive around 36 kilometers on her motorbike from one place to the next, to meet and work with mothers. Sometimes, she would fall down in the mud on the way to villager’s houses, as many of the dirt roads and tracks in the area are in disrepair. Some villagers did not believe Ms. Youm’s intentions and they refused to cooperate with her. Still, she kept doing it without any complaint.
“As I am a member of CCWC, I was not afraid of those challenges,” said Youm without hesitation. “I would sacrifice more if I could, so children in my village can receive education.”
Her commitment and dedication have not been in vain. Many people have now changed their behaviors and attitudes towards their children’s education. They now attend regularly the parenting groups and share their experiences after applying what they have learned from the previous sessions. They can easily apply the lessons with their children at home during daily activities like cooking, cleaning and bathing.
“When they see me, they ask me a lot of question related to their children’s education,” said Ms. Youm excitedly. “They care a lot for their children; I am happy and proud of my work.”
Because of the project, the school drop-out and repetition rates have decreased. This year is the last year of Save the Children’s First Read project in Ms. Youm’s commune. She has worked very hard to advocate the Commune Council to allocate some budget for early childhood care and development activities in the community. Because they understand the importance of this, the Commune Council decided to allocate a small budget into the commune investment program to continue these activities beyond the life of the project.
“Even though it is a small budget, it will help us to continue parenting session when Save the Children phases out,” explained Ms. Youm. “I would like to thank Save the Children, and [hope] they could continue to provide technical mentoring and coaching to the parenting facilitators and me on early childhood care and development.”