Quitting School to Work: Srey Ny’s Tough Life Journey

Thoeun Srey Ny is speaking with Cambodianess reporter. Photo: ThmeyThmey

PHNOM PENH – Not all young Cambodians have equal access to education. While the luckiest children – often from the wealthiest families – can attend classes in private and international schools, the least fortunate ones have to drop out of school at a young age to work and support their families.

Thoeun Srey Ny is from the second category. In 2020, the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic left her parents in despair. With no choice left, she had to stop attending school and went to work to financially support her family, even though she was only 13 years old.

“My dad’s job is to collect garbage that can be recycled and make some money out of it. His daily income is just enough to buy food,” said Srey Ny, who is now 17.

Along with her mother and younger brother, she joined her dad in his daily activity, picking up metal cans, plastic bottles and cardboard on the streets of Cheung Kaeub commune, the place she is from in Kandal province.

Usually referred to as “edjay” in Khmer, it is notoriously known for being a particularly precarious business. Aluminum and plastic are sold at a very low price per kilo and are sent to Vietnam to be recycled.

“My salary helps my family pay off debts and provide support for the everyday expenses,” said Srey Ny.

Just like her, thousands of school-age Cambodian children still have to put their education aside to start work and contribute to family expenses.

According to a UNICEF report named ‘An Analysis of the Situation of Children and Adolescents in Cambodia 2023’, 22 percent of Cambodians under 18 years old were living below the poverty line in 2020, while the country’s average stood at 17.8 percent that same year.

The proportion of children living below the poverty line even increased by six points compared to 2014, particularly because of the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

“Unfortunately, the pandemic and oil price shocks slowed growth, and poverty is common, particularly in the informal labor market, with 81 percent of all jobs considered vulnerable,” states the report.

As a result, children are more likely to drop out of school to contribute to household finances.

In 2019, while 81 percent of the children completed primary school in Cambodia, only 49 percent completed lower secondary education (until the end of grade 9), and 26 percent completed upper secondary (up to grade 12).

The report also notes significant disparities in school attendance depending on the socioeconomic background of the families.

“Adolescents in the top 20 percent wealthiest households are four times more likely to complete lower secondary education than those in the bottom 20 percent,” it points out.

Kun Khmer to the rescue

Srey Ny’s father, Thoeun Tha Muth, said he feels sorry his daughter had to stop her education, but the family had faced financial issues after his eldest son had a traffic accident that drained their finances.

“My daughter was very smart when she was in seventh grade [when she dropped out of school],” he said. “If there is an opportunity, I want my daughter to continue her study. But the problem is our finances, without her support, our family would collapse.”

Despite feeling overwhelmed, she loves Kun Khmer and wants to follow the track of her role model, Nov Srey Pov, one of Cambodia’s most renowned fighters. Photo: ThmeyThmey

At 42 years old, Tha Muth has to work two full-time jobs simultaneously to meet the family’s needs: after working as an “edjay” during the day, he takes a security guard position at night.

While he used to work as a construction worker, where he could have a better income, he said he now feels that he no longer has the strength to do heavy work as he used to.

“If I could have continued [working in construction], I wouldn’t have left my daughter leave school,” he said.

Since she left school in 2020, Srey Ny has stopped working as a garbage picker and found a job in a factory, which guarantees her a better and more stable salary.

To find solace, she and her younger brother started taking Kun Khmer lessons in February 2023 and aim to become professional fighters.

To make it happen, Srey Ny wakes up every day at 5:20 in the morning and goes running. After a short break, she goes to work, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and tries to find time for sparring in this very busy schedule.

Despite feeling overwhelmed, she loves Kun Khmer and wants to follow the track of her role model, Nov Srey Pov, one of Cambodia’s most renowned fighters.

“I am exhausted. Sometimes I am depressed and want to give up, but my father keeps encouraging me to go further,” said Srey Ny. “I will keep working hard even though I lack time. I always try to find 1 or 2 hours for sparring.”

“I’m sometimes afraid she won’t keep up, but I have faith in her as she is talented and put a lot of effort into it,” Srey Ny’s father said. “If she can do it, I’m only too happy to give her more encouragement.”

So far, Srey Ny’s efforts have paid off: The young fighter has won all of her two matches.

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