Saing Beth, 17, says he’s already abandoned his dream of becoming a police officer. Driving a taxi, as he’s doing now, is not as rewarding for the young man, but he can earn 10,000-20,000 riel a day, or about $2.5-5. If he finished school with the intention to become an officer, he’d have to be paying 10,000 riel per day for food and other daily expenses, and his parents barely have the money.
“Where could they get the money for me to finish school, since they have no income?” Beth wonders.
Beth quit his grade 7 studies a month ago to help his parents, and he says he’s not the only student to do so while market prices are sinking for a community driven by fishing: “Students here find it very difficult to study because sometimes they need to help their parents with fishing.”
Young people in Pursat province’s Raingtoel commune say they’ve dropped out of school to fish or find other work, citing low wages and lack of connectivity when classes went online during the pandemic.
Soy Keo, deputy of the fishing community in Kandieng district’s Raingtoel commune, estimates that only 20 percent of students in the commune continued their studies since the Covid-19 pandemic forced classes to go online.
There was already pressure for students to drop out and help with fishing and other business activities, but online classes made studying impossible for some.
“Some could learn, and some did not, because they are required to have a smartphone,” he says. “Those who do not have smartphones could not learn. … Some people do not let their children study because they need their children to assist them. Child labor happens, but the daily life factors are more important because they have no land to live on, and depend only on the Tonle Sap.”
Raingtoel primary school principal Theng Thorn says that the commune has long had issues retaining students, saying that many parents figure that even children who graduate grade 12 will return to fishing in the commune, so there’s little reason to continue studies.
“When we tried to explain to them, they replied that they had lived for 50 to 60 years already with illiteracy, and they could still raise their children. So, we are out of ideas,” he says.
Khli Menea, a grade 6 student, says just 10 students in his class are attending, out of a total 20 students enrolled. His classes are limited under the pandemic restrictions: His teacher will send a lesson on Thursday or Friday over Telegram, and the students will meet their teacher in person at the school on Mondays to review the lesson. When they have to meet online when in-person classes are closed, Menea says the unstable internet connections interfere with their studies.
“While learning at school, we can meet with our teacher, he can explain and elaborate and give examples for us about the exercises. … Learning online, we can get 50 percent [of what the teacher says]. [The teacher] sends the lesson and he cannot show [his work] and he can only give marks.”
According to the Education Ministry’s latest available data, Pursat province’s dropout rates have been increasing slightly for primary school students — from 4.6 percent in the 2017-18 school year to 6.7 percent in 2019-20 — as well as lower secondary students, from 16.3 percent to 17.5 percent, even as they have fallen substantially for upper secondary students.
Pursat School Dropout Rates
|Primary||Lower Secondary||Upper Secondary|
National dropout statistics have followed the same pattern, rising between the 2017-18 and 2019-20 school years for primary and lower secondary students, while decreasing for upper secondary students.
When Beth decided to drop out, he at least wanted to control his career: He did not see any future in fishing.
“I used to see my father fishing, laying his net along the river, with huge waves as big as his boat and the winds … he went fishing and risked his life to fish and earn money to support our family. Sometimes he sleeps at night and waits under the hot sun — I do not want to have this difficult life like him.”
Tum Chantuo, 16, has decided to drop school for this difficult life, joining some 20 students who he says have quit out of his 50-member class.
“My parents are very poor. … I help my father with fishing.”
His father, Mei Tum, is upset that his son quit school to help him transport people and catch fish on the Tonle Sap. He’s not been able to fish as he used to when he was younger, so his son wanted to help the 43-year-old father.
“I have not asked him to stop but he stopped by himself,” he says. “I also wanted him to go back to school. He sees me having a very difficult time and becoming weak and it’s only me going fishing and carrying people, so he stopped school.”
Tum says Chantuo’s 20-year-old sister had also quit her studies in grade 6. The family has five children but only one phone, which they mostly take to work on the water. Getting another phone — to allow access to education — is unattainable when the fish catch is so poor, he says. Tum has gone into debt from investing in new nets while failing to fill them with fish.
“We do not catch fish like before, since we use the traditional methods,” he says. When asked about the decline in fish, he says: “I’m speechless.”