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Addressing girls concerns in schools

We are working with our local partners in Cambodia to support children’s councils and peer educators to use a School Monitoring Tool to assess how child-friendly schools are. It is particularly effective at providing opportunities for children and youth, particularly girls, to voice their concerns and improve their access to education. The project offers a unique policy opportunity for the implementation of Cambodia’s Child Friendly School Policy. The government currently uses the School Self-Assessment to monitor changes at schools, which is carried out by education staff representing a top-down approach. The School Monitoring Tool, in contrast, is done by students in a bottom up approach. With the tool, students have an opportunity to monitor their learning environment and bring their findings to the school authorities.

We have been implementing a School Monitoring Tool in a range of schools in Siep Reap province. A group of students at Angkor Chum high school tell us about their experiences with the tool: “I started school when I was quite old because my parents throught I was too small and they were worried I would drown on my way to school, due to the floods in the area,' says Chan Raksar, leader of the children’s council. She is now 19 and in grade 10. Her story helped highlight a key environmental barrier to her education. Thanks to the School Monitoring Tool, the issue was identified and the road to her school, and the area around her school, were improved.

However, according to Raksar, the key priority was sanitation. “The latrine was dirty and it smelled bad.  Defecation was not flushed away and the hygiene situation was terrible,” she said. She and other council members noticed that students often went home early and dropped out of school because they did not have access to clean toilets.  Coinciding with this was the poor hygiene of the food vendors in the area.  The child council saw that the food was not hygenically displayed and that without proper washing facilities, the vendors were not able to wash their hands.

“We knew this was happeneing but we didn't know how to change it, so we all continued to get  sick and went home with diarrhoea,” explained Raksar.  “When the students had stomach problems, they couldn't concentrate on their studies and their attendance was low. Poor students would drop out of school and leave the village to find jobs," she says.

Another issue was around examinations.“The teachers would photocopy the questions and sell them," Raksar explained.  The school was also prone to flooding.  “You can see the watermark on the school walls,” she gestures, showing the knee-high stain on the building. “Students would fall in the water on the way to school and their books would get wet," she adds.

Leader of the children’s council Chan Raksar (second from the right), 19, and her peers discuss issues to be improved in their school
Leader of the children’s council Chan Raksar (second from the right), 19, and her peers discuss issues to be improved in their school

"I can now see improvement in the school," says Raksar. "First the hygiene. We raised the issue about the food vendors in the council meeting. We said that if their food was unhygienic, fewer children would buy it. The vendors now cover the food with glass, which protects it from flies." In this way, the students devised a win-win situation which benefited  both the vendors and the students, pointing out how improvements would help the vendor's business.

“Their attitude is better—they now clean their hands and wash the dishes. There are fewer children with stomach problems. I also see more children buying their food,” she explains.“The latrines are now also cleaner. The principal agrees with the benefit."

The school's deputy principal, Seng Sambole, 41, says “The School Monitoring Tool project helps us to get accurate information about issues.  For the latrine issues, we used our budget to buy toilet sanitation materials."

"The exam papers issue was also addressed, " he adds. "The change happened on two fronts.  The Ministry banned the practice and students raised the issue at the national level.

One of the most profound and under-researched issues, and one which had great impact when it was addressed, was menstruation. The issue was raised by the student council and was supported by sexual and reproductive health education.

Phoem Makara, age 32, lower secondary school teacher elaborates:  “Students used to go home and stop studying but now they can come and raise issues and get counselling—especially in sexual and reproductive health.  The reason we have a session on sexual and reproductive health to teach the girls is because girls sometimes drop out of class and don’t attend.  They feel shy and don’t solve their problems related to menstruation.”

Another aspect of the project was to support the operation and function of a counselling service in the schools, including the counselling of families of girls at risk of dropout.  This involved youth and children’s councils in the referral of cases and follow up.

Makara says “The counselling room gives girls a place to wash and dress. This is why the latrine issue is so important.  While they can use the latrine, we advise them to dispose of their pads in a plastic bag and put it in the trash bin.”

Makara smiles when she says “The survey a big change in my school.  I am really happy your team came and we created the change.  It’s better for all of us. Girls used to be shy but now they are really brave and come to teachers with problems.  We can see the result in their studies as the girls are now in the top range."

Raksar concludes “As for meeting leaders at the national level, I didn’t expect to do this but now I feel confident.  Before, when I saw the issue and raised it with classmates, we spoke with one teacher, not a committee but only women teachers.  Now things have changed and we speak with male teachers too.  We are encouraged to see that students are doing better at school."