“I am happy because when I help others it makes me feel like a big-hearted person. It also helps me gain more knowledge and experiences. The more I teach, the more I learn.”
Standing on the makeshift stage in their schoolyard, Socheata and Sodanet were in the midst of a passionate debate about the best way to support Cambodian girls to stop them from dropping out of school. This was a topic the two friends and their classmates had come up with themselves for the debate, which Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program organizes every year across its Cambodian partner schools.
The best friends—students in the Program—grinned at each other from opposing teams. “We only argue when we debate,” said Socheata. “The rest of the time we’re very supportive of each other.”
That’s an understatement coming from two girls who not only excel in the Program’s Life Skills Education component—which uses activities like debating to build confidence, among other key competencies—but who are using their newfound skills to help an entire cohort of Cambodian school girls achieve their academic potential.
Agents of change
In Cambodia, only 20% of students ever finish secondary school and schoolgirls especially tend to drop out to help support their families who often don’t see the value in sending a girl to school. Particularly in rural areas, parents tend to believe it’s more important for their daughters to help at home, contribute income to the family, or marry early.
Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program has been working steadily to change this perception by teaching its young participants important life skills such as empathy, critical thinking and self-efficacy, which everyone needs in order to meet day-to-day challenges and make informed decisions.
The program’s Life Skills component also gives students an opportunity to learn and practice key competencies like leadership, communication and peer mentoring through classes, workshops, and extracurricular activities. At the same time, it is equipping its students with the tools they need to be agents of change in their own communities.
Incredible role models
And that’s just what Socheata and Sodanet are doing. Through a network of informal life skills clubs called “Friend Help Friend,” which the program’s students have been helping to organize with Room to Read, the two girls practice in real world situations the life skills they’ve learned. At the same time they’re spreading that knowledge to their friends, their families, and their communities.
Socheata and Sodanet regularly ride their bikes into their communities to campaign against early marriage and child labor, and to promote girls’ education and gender equality. Campaigning is one of the responsibilities of being Friend Help Friend team leaders. To the program staff’s surprise, the girls have even sought out meetings with their villages’ district officers to inform them of the difficult issues facing Cambodian girls.
Student leaders like Socheata and Sodanet are enrolled in yearly workshops to further develop their leadership, communication, and community outreach skills. The promising leaders are encouraged to share what they learn with their classmates and communities.
As the program Associate Manager Linda Tran put it, “Girl leaders are incredibly powerful and inspiring role models for other girls.”
Lobbying the parents
On weekends Socheata and Sodanet also lead study groups that are part of the larger Friend Help Friend network of clubs, of which there are nearly 200 across Room to Read Cambodia’s partner schools. The girls’ goal is to target students who are struggling in school or in danger of dropping out.
According to Socheata’s social mobilizer— an adult mentor provided by Room to Read—the positive impact of their study groups has been remarkable. Last year a girl named Mot, who had been frequently absent from school, was close to dropping out. Then she joined the study group and for the first time she felt like she had the support she needed to stay in school—plus she found she really liked studying with her peers. Now Mot is fully committed to completing secondary school.
Parents of the study group’s students are also impressed with the changes they’re seeing. “My daughter works harder in school,” noted the mother of an eighth grade member. “She even uses polite words more and helps more with the housework. I’m glad she joined the group.”
Socheata and Sodanet have now set their sights on the parents of schoolgirls at risk of dropping out. They visit the parents to educate them about the benefits of allowing their daughters to stay in school. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don’t, but the two girls never lose their spirit.
“The more I teach, the more I learn”
Sodanet knows firsthand how helpful it is to get academic and emotional support from peer mentors. It was Socheata’s suggestion to study together that transformed Sodanet from an average student who didn’t think much about education into the second highest student in her class—just behind Socheata.
Inspired by the rewards that come from helping the struggling students she has met in her study group, Sodanet hopes one day to become a high school teacher. Meanwhile, Socheata plans to become a doctor so she can help the relatives in her village suffering from illnesses. She, too, has benefited more than she’d expected from her experiences as a leader and a mentor.
“I am happy because when I help others it makes me feel like a big-hearted person,” says Socheata with a smile. “It also helps me gain more knowledge and experiences. The more I teach, the more I learn.”