I am sure that most of my readers know that the First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama visited Cambodia last weekend. Mrs. Obama was in Siem Reap province to introduce Let Girls Learn, a U.S. government initiative to raise awareness of access inequalities and breaking down barriers that block more than 62 million girls around the world from attending school. The initiative, led by Peace Corps and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), will work with the Ministry of Education and local communities in Cambodia to find solutions to the challenges that prevent girls from staying in school.
However, government programs alone may not meet the immediate challenge of ensuring every girl has access to education − individuals and civil society organizations are also critical partners that work to help girls stay in school. Room to Read, a U.S.-based organization, is one such partner working in 10 countries in Asia and Africa. The organization, founded in 2000 on the motto “World Change Starts with Educated Children,” aims to transform the lives of millions of children by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education. By working in collaboration with families, local communities, partner organizations, and governments, Room to Read has impacted the lives of more than nine million children around the world.
Room to Read has two programs to improve children’s education – the Literacy Program enables children to develop a regular habit of reading and the Girls’ Education Program supports girls in completing secondary school and developing life skills. Here in Cambodia, I believe the success of Room to Read speaks for itself. Since 2003, the organization has established 1,737 school libraries by providing materials and training for staff, helped fund construction of 253 schools, delivered reading and writing instruction workshops in 212 schools, and published over 180 books with nearly 1.4 million copies in circulation.
Girls in Cambodia face many challenges to stay in school. Some families are unable to afford to send their daughters to school or they place less value on girls’ education than on that of boys. Room to Read tackles the issue of girls dropping out of school in a number of ways. First, the Girls’ Education program provides six-year scholarships to girls whose families cannot support their study beyond the lower secondary level. The support includes tutoring, school uniforms, learning materials, and mentoring. Second, community meetings are held for parents to discuss their challenges and the importance of sending all of their children—not just the boys—to school. The program also enlists volunteers in the local community to follow up on the girls’ academic performance and attendance, provide life skills trainings, and mentor the girls. Lastly, Room to Read has established itself as a key partner for the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports to promote and strengthen the quality of education in Cambodia.
I am very proud that the First Lady chose to visit Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program in Cambodia to see first-hand how its community-driven solutions are changing girls’ lives. Mrs. Obama was joined by Mrs. Bun Rany, First Lady of Cambodia, for a visit to the Hun Sen Bakorng High School in Siem Reap. The first ladies met with 10 girls in the Girls’ Education Program who shared their personal stories of overcoming obstacles to education and to hear how they benefit from community-led programs like Room to Read.
The U.S. government is committed to working with all stakeholders to improve girls’ access to education. I applaud Room to Read for working with families, communities, and the Cambodian government to find local solutions to overcome the obstacles that prevent girls from staying in school.