Should I feed my children or educate them?

Mony is a single mother of four living in rural Cambodia. Work is scarce and irregular and it’s hard to make ends meet. Her children, like so many others, know they must help out from an early age.

The cost of going to a government school is around $1 a day. For Mony, living with the daily struggle of poverty, it’s an impossible sum. With little education herself, she works as a day labourer. Often travelling great distances to find work, she earns just $5 a day. To educate her four children would cost $4 a day, or 80% of her income. She faces a choice no one should have to make: Should I feed my children or educate them?

Sophea is Mony’s oldest daughter. Bright, funny and quirky, Sophea started government primary school but could not attend regularly. Sophea and her older brother could not even start secondary school before they had to find work to help Mony care for two younger siblings.

Cambodia’s background:

Although it’s been 20 years since the surrender of the Khmer Rouge, decades of war and conflict have left Cambodia deeply scarred. Today it’s one of the poorest countries in the world, struggling with vastly inadequate healthcare and education infrastructure. Just 1 in 4 young people finish high school – even fewer in rural communities. It’s not uncommon to see children as young as 10 years old doing unsafe and heavy work, labouring on construction sites or farms.

Even if children do stay in school, the standard of education in government schools is extremely low. Students at 11 or 12 years old often still can’t read or write.

Because their wages are so low, teachers often charge extra fees to bring students up to standard by tutoring them outside of school hours. So students who can’t afford this extra tuition – like Mony’s children – fall even further behind their classmates.

The most significant day of Sophea’s young life started as usual. Sophea and her mother were working together in a bottle factory for their meagre wages. Jesuit Service Cambodia’s outreach team, who travel around to local poor villages in search of families that need help, found 15 year old Sophea. They identified her as a candidate who would greatly benefit from a scholarship and recommended her to Xavier Jesuit School, where she was accepted.

Led by Australian Jesuit Fr Quyen Vu SJ, the Xavier Jesuit School (XJS) is run by Jesuit Mission’s local partner, and was founded in 2015 in one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia.

“Our goal is to convince students that you sacrifice a few years now, but then you can help not only yourself, but your family,” says Fr Quyen. “Through education these students can go on to have skills, a career, a profession.”

The school encourages independent thought instead of the usual rote-learning taught in Cambodian schools. It strives to empower students, strengthening their hearts and minds so they can learn, grow and contribute to the new future of Cambodian society.

“Education is the key to helping students out of their poverty,” says Fr Quyen. “Without education they will become unskilled labourers. But if they have a dream, then they have a goal and a purpose and an aim. We try to help them dream big.”

Sophea’s new life at Xavier Jesuit School:

When she arrived at school aged 16, she entered Year 7. Despite her maturity, she had to study with peers 3 or 4 years younger than her and often academically more advanced than her. As well as this difficulty, she was tormented by guilt about leaving her mother and younger siblings.

But Mony’s vision for her daughter is so strong she encouraged Sophea to be brave and to dream of a worthwhile future. After a year, Sophea began to take younger children under her wing, and soothe their worries with her jokes and games. Today the change in her is dramatic.

“She is so full of joy!” reports Fr Quyen. “Her hard work and determination are paying off. She’s making great progress in her coursework which includes Khmer, music and art.”

Currently 530 students attend XJS from kindergarten to Year 12. Within three years, Fr Quyen hopes to increase that to 1,210 students. XJS is committed to serving the poorest of the poor with at least 20% of the student cohort to receive free education through scholarships.

For more on XJS and to see the video, see https://jesuitmission.org.au/program/xjs/

This article first appeared on Jesuit Mission Australia.