Cambodia is a country of great contrasts. From the wealthy, powerful Khmer Empire up till the 15th century, to a protectorate of France in the early 20th century, the land gained independence in 1953.
Then came the four-year rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, resulting in terrible sufferings and genocide which wiped out an estimated three million people. Civil war and sufferings continued in the 1980s during the Vietnamese occupation.
The brutality of the last few decades and the destruction of the cultural, economic, social and political life left the land and its people in shambles, and it was only in recent years that some political stability finally returned to Cambodia.
However, it remained one of the poorest countries in the world today, depending on grants and soft loans from other countries to survive. There is a great disparity between the rich and the poor in Cambodia today. About ten per cent of the population owns nearly ninety per cent of the land.
The poor live in slums mostly outside the capital city of Phnom Penh, with no access to running water, sewage system or electricity. A third of the population survive on less than US$1/- a day. Most are odd job labourers, motorbike taxi drivers, construction workers and helpers, or scavengers for bottles and cans.
Diseases such as HIV, dengue fever and tuberculosis are rampant. Two-thirds of the population of 14 million are below 25 years of age. About half a million Cambodian children of primary school-going age remain out of school. Many grow up in incomplete or dysfunctional families (i.e. single-parent homes, several siblings, extreme poverty) which are not conducive for their growth and well-being. Education opportunities are very limited due to limited financial resources of these families.
Local teachers are not entirely qualified to oversee their education, and many receive bribes to give additional tuition to their students so that they can pass exams. Among those who attend school regularly, dropout rates and grade repetition rates are very high. Without an educated pool of citizens, the country cannot survive on its own.