A teenage tragedy – a sad loss of life

This week the children at our school were rocked by the sudden death of one of their fellow students, a teenager who took his own life one evening. Nobody saw it coming. Today as I write this, there is a full-scale funeral for the boy and those attending include fellow students, teachers and other staff who have been involved in the care and teaching of this young man.

The event may have been triggered by another suicide, also involving a teenager from the same village one month earlier: I can’t be certain of this.

The sad news prompted me to research the incidence of suicide in Cambodia, and to examine some of the attitudes surrounding this.

Ten years ago when I first came to Cambodia I asked about attitudes to suicide, thinking that perhaps Buddhist attitudes might be more accepting of this, compared to Western religions. Not so: it appears all major religions in the world are agreed that taking one’s own life is a tragedy best avoided.

But avoiding suicide amongst teenagers is a difficult thing. My own country, New Zealand, holds one of the worst teenage suicide rates in the world, and in 20 years I’ve not seen any convincing program to deal with this problem. More likely, the story is more granular and complex – with many many good interventions effectively saving lives but going unreported while meanwhile a bigger avalanche is still occurring.

In Cambodia psychologists have in recent years turned their attention away from the stress disorders resulting from the Pol Pot years, and started to focus on the issues faced by the burgeoning young generation aged under 30.

Here the figures get murky. According to government reports, for example in 2013, there were some 600 suicides in Cambodia, up by 13% over 2012.

But these figures are hotly disputed by university psychologists who have studied the issue in depth. They say 600 is a mere fraction of the real numbers. One issue is the lack of autopsy and official record-keeping associated with deaths in highly rural Cambodia.

And as a researcher I know how hard it is to otherwise calculate these things. You can’t just conduct a survey and ask people on a scale of 10, how close they have come to taking their own lives. Ms Sek Sisokhom, head of the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s psychology department suggests that the government figures woefully under-report the true state of affairs. Using rigorous research, and representative sampling, her research calculates that among adults the rate is more likely in excess of 40 individuals per hundred thousand (42.35 reported suicides per 100,000 of the population in 2011.)  This puts Cambodia right near the top of the ladder in terms of global figures, unfortunately. See Phnom Penh Post.

The under-reporting, which is clearly happening, reveals something of the attitudes towards suicide – and a lack of concerted effort to do something to prevent young people taking their own lives. If society was committed to solving the problem, then it would begin by measuring it and looking for patterns.

As it stands, the existing research reveals the following:

  • Young people under the age of 25 are the most susceptible to thoughts of suicide.
  • There is a clear gender split – young men much more likely to contemplate suicide compared to young women.
  • There are societal causes implicated including unemployment and poverty.

Psychology studies in Cambodia (see also) conclude that young people are poorly equipped when it comes to discussing the problems, or knowing where to go should they need help. Like young people in many places, the young adults of Cambodia tend to bottle-up their feelings, often hiding their true state of mind.

As social workers worldwide recognise, suicides can occur in contagions – with one event at a high school triggering others. Whereas western schools are, more and more, putting grief counselling processes in place – or having access to these – the same is not true in Cambodia. Yesterday I spoke about this with a friend of mine, Royce, who actually comes from the same village as the boy took his own life. He recommended that we get in contact with an organisation, an NGO, that specialises in social counselling: TPO is the organisation, and while their main focus was historically on postwar stress disorders, their services now include grief counselling.

This week is very sad, but we should use the opportunity to increase our understanding of the issues, and raise the level of grief counselling intervention to help prevent another contagion.

Where there’s smoke…there’s TB. Cambodia joins the fight against smoking.

A problem for health authorities is that cigarettes are priced so cheaply, even the poorest sector can get hooked on smoking.

A problem for health authorities is that cigarettes are priced so cheaply, even the poorest sector can get hooked on smoking. It doesn’t help that a leading Senator is importing cheap cigarettes.

A recent factoid caught my eye the other day –  the value of cigarette imports to Cambodia. Cigarettes  are, by value, one of the leading imports to this nation. What an extremely  unfortunate  thing to trade  in exchange for the hard labour that goes into producing rice,  Cambodia’s leading export crop.

In 1999 one researcher reported that the very poor spend a 2-3 times greater fraction of their income on tobacco relative to the rich. In urban areas, a poor Cambodian might spend in excess of 7% of their income on tobacco, as opposed to 2% or less spent by the affluent. A secondary analysis of the 1999 Socioeconomic Survey of Cambodia indicated that the annual cash expenditure of Cambodian smokers on cigarettes was about $US69.44 million. This annual expenditure on cigarettes is enough to buy 274,304 tons of quality rice, 1,388,382 bicycles, or construct 27,778 wooden houses.

Alarming figures! And that’s without counting the health costs associated with smoking. By 2011 the annual spend on tobacco was just this side of $US100 million.

The Ministry of health in Cambodia  has set objectives to reduce the percentage  of smokers  who are,  overwhelmingly,  males. in 2011  a thorough survey estimated that 42% of males aged 18+ a tobacco users.  Of these males,  20% began smoking before the age of 15.

Tobacco usage amongst females, as we see in other parts of Asia,  is relatively low – in the single digits –  and,  in Cambodia,  often reflected in tobacco chewing rather than smoking.  Tobacco chewing  this often seen as a mild stimulant that eases period cramps.

In total  there are 2 million tobacco users in Cambodia.

In many countries  smoking is not an option for the very poor,  due to the prohibitive cost of cigarettes. However  price is not a barrier in Cambodia, and mainstream cigarette brands  are available for less than $.40c for a pack of 20.  (In 2011 the average price per pack of 20 was 20 cents.) So without a serious barrier, the demographic group most likely to be smoking in Cambodia are poor, rural males.

Cigarette tax  seems to be most obvious way of curbing the number of smokers in Cambodia. Some  90% of the population agree that smoking is bad for once health, and a similar figure support the idea of a tobacco tax. Would it work? When the National Institute of statistics conducted its adult tobacco survey in 2011the fieldworkers were instructed to take note  of cigarette packs of the users they interviewed. Some 95%  of these packs for the seal of existing government taxes –  evidence that  black-market cigarettes are less well is distributed and some had feared. So a tax hike would be realistic.

Any  visitor to Cambodia  will have noticed the big billboards promoting cigarettes as glamorous –  real Marlboro Man stuff! There is widespread public support  for banning such advertising.

Change usually has to come from the top – the very top. For  what it’s worth, Prime Minister Hun Sen, a lifelong smoker himself,  recently announced that he had quit. Perhaps that clears the air  for a more concerted public policy  to prevent young Cambodian males in particular to take up cigarettes.

That seems unlikely. Oknha Ly Yong Phat, a CPP Senator, and previously an economic adviser to the Prime Minister is President of LYP Group that imports high nicotine cigarettes from Indonesia, Hero brand and Jet.

MY FUNDRAISING CRISIS

Money isn't everything, but it sure helps. Savong's School - like every school world-wide, needs funds.

Money isn’t everything, but it sure helps. The school – like every school world-wide, needs funds.

Last week I reignited this blog after five months silence. A few of you will know that this year I had a health surprise, namely a diagnosis of Parkinsons disease.  So far the disease has not produced radical symptoms –  extreme shakes,  or, an affliction that strikes many sufferers, ( at least eventually,)  immobility. It is not uncommon for those with Parkinsons to freeze  when they get to a door,  and require some visual prompt to get them started again. I’d say I’m  bound to be on an interesting adventure to say the least.  But for now my symptoms include:

  • Loss of the use of my right hand when it comes to typing. My right arm is about as useful as a plank of wood.
  • The need for much more sleep!
  • A slowdown in my work rate –  my brain is sharp,  but it takes longer to get my thoughts down on paper.

During my  five months silence  I enjoyed a long overdue holiday with my partner, Susanna, and I spent quiet time ruminating about the impact of my condition.  It has scrapped the old rules, but the problem is there are no new hard guidelines.  Everybody with Parkinsons  experiences a different combination of symptoms,  and the onslaught of these occurs at different speeds. Who knows? So against this shifty backdrop I have been trying to contemplate what the impact will be on my life.  I’m starting to set goals  and objectives: of bucket list of things I want to achieve before – and just in case – I deteriorate beyond usefulness.

Some of these goals are very tangible.  I wish to complete a long cycle ride within the next 24 months,  and there are some writing projects that I have started already: things I have long wanted to write.

But there is one central crisis I have not been able to resolve,  and that is the funding  of Savong’s school in Cambodia. Savong’s project  has many branches –  two homes for children,  a student centre for older students in Siem Reap, as well is the school  in Bakong which serves primary school children as well is secondary.  It also provides scholarships to University  for the top grade 12 students each year.  These scholarships are worth about $1000 per student per annum  over the four years required to get a degree.

All up,  the school  requires at least $3000 per month to run, and a majority of this money has come out of my own earnings.  Over the past 10 years it has been more efficient for me to knuckle down to work, to earn my income as a researcher,  and to send the money over to Cambodia. Far easier than fund raising.

This last year I was going to make the transition  toward fundraising however.  I am almost 60, retirement is around the corner,  and I need to find an alternative  source of income to underwrite the ongoing expenses  of Savong’s school. I saw this as a kind of baton change in a relay race.  What the Parkinsons diagnosis did was cause me to stumble badly and drop the baton.

So now by my reckoning  I have got eight months  to get my fundraising act together.  Somehow,  somewhere,  through some people,  I need to find sponsors  to the tune of US$3000 per month. The school in Cambodia,  which serves many hundreds of children,  faces many challenges of its own:  my health shouldn’t be one of them.

See also: About the school.

And how to donate the school.

Malnutrition still a problem in Cambodia

Rice production is rising in Cambodia - but as agriculture develops there is still a serious malnutrition problem.

Rice production is rising in Cambodia – but as agriculture develops there is still a serious malnutrition problem.

For anyone who visits Cambodia regularly  there is a palpable sense, upon each visit,  that this troubled little nation is making rapid strides economically.  In 2004 I remember my motorcycle driver in Phnom Penh  taking me to see the most dazzling symbol of the modern age: Cambodia’s first escalator. He had never actually set foot on it before, and it was a pleasure watching him take his first ride.  At the time as a Westerner, I felt very much like a visitor from another and very privilegedplanet.

Today the sky line-up Phnom Penh is sprouting high-rise buildings at a rapid rate, smart phone usage across the nation is soaring, roads are becoming congested with cars and at first glance it appears that the days of poverty are basically over. This poses a question for any supporters of NGOs in Cambodia: at what point do we say, the job is done –  mission accomplished?

Well, don’t pop the Champagne just yet. According to some recent figures published this year, and funded by the Independent European based organisation;  Global Governance for Hunger Reduction Program productivity by Cambodia’s agricultural sector has soared, at least in US dollar terms,  since 2007 –  basically doubling in that time from US$3.5 billion  to US$7.9 billion in 2011.  Now those figures include the tremendous price spike in commodity prices that occurred in 2008 –  but even so,  if we measure cereal yields (rice, maize etc)  we see yields growing  by 16%  in terms of tonnes per hectare over the same time. (The real revenue is being generated by rubber, palm oil and sugar,)

The government  has a medium to long-term strategy of increasing the value and quality of agricultural output so that the rice, for example, meets the stringent quality standards demanded by Western markets who in turn will pay premium prices. Cambodia will be sharing this story at the Milan Expo 2015.

But the same source of facts and figures has a few warning signals.  Right now Cambodian farmers,  who make up 65% of the total national workforce, are focused on low value add commodities – namely rice – whereas Cambodia’s main commodity imports,  measured in dollars,  a spearheaded by the importation of, get this: cigarettes.  Economists often  illustrate their science by giving examples of guns and butter,  but in this modern example Cambodia appears to be trading cheap rice for expensive cancer.

That’s my judgement anyway,  but the figures also highlight the degree of malnutrition that is occurring even today in booming Cambodia.

Since 2007  the poverty rate in Cambodia has halved,  but it still sits at 20% of the entire population below the line of  $30 per month. The poverty gap is widening. The wealth is trickling upwards quicker than downwards.

One measure of malnutrition is the incidence of underweight children under five years old. In 2007 when the poverty rate was closer to 40%, some 28.8% of children were reported as underweight. Two years later the figure was virtually unchanged.

According to the authors of the report the number of Cambodians undernourished in 2009  was 2.9 million. Today the figure is improving –  but the figure is still over 2 million people.

Finally, they report the improvement between 2007 and 2011  of the percentage of Cambodians who have access to clean water sources. Again, this is improving, but has a long way to go. In 2007 some 59% had access to clean water. Four years later  the figure had improved to 67%. Still, that leaves close to 5,000,000 Cambodians without access to improved water sources today.

The economy may be booming, but with 80% of Cambodians living in rural circumstances, there is a sense in the data that many are toiling  hard, but getting no further ahead.

The government crackdown on school exam cheats

CAMBODIA PLUS BACK TO WORK MAY 09 097

A fishy pass rate in 2013 – virtually halved after a crackdown on Grade 12 cheating.

It is interesting to consider the extent – rife by any measure – of high school exam cheating in Cambodia. the figures are stark: 2013 the Grade 12 exams were wide open to cheating, and 83% passed. In 2014 following a crackdown on cheating, just 39% passed. Ouch!

How and why should cheating be so widespread in a land where there is a fairly strong religious moral code at work?

  • For one thing, there is a desperate profit motive – and a widespread form of cheating was always made possible by the willingness of some teachers to copy and sell answer sheets for the exams.
  • Second, as in countries like Italy, (or, dare I say, in New Zealand or the USA,) there is a distinction made between personal morality versus one’s stance towards a government which is largely distrusted. You wouldn’t cheat your family, but you might happily ‘beat the system.’
  • Third, the high-stakes for the grade 12 students. Passing those exams is like a gateway to a better future. Failure at this point has huge long-term repercussions. The small act of cheating today has had little downside, while it has potentially massive upsides: the risk is worth it.
  • Fourth – very poor exam supervision. In 2013 newspaper reports quoted students as saying they actively passed notes and answers around to their fellow students. There were an inadequate number of independent monitors, and of course some of the teachers who were doing the monitoring were the same teachers who had previously sold the answers.
  • Fifthly, nobody foresaw the ease with which social media could be employed to share the answers around the exam hall. With the ownership of smart phones being so high, it was easy for students to create Facebook pages dedicated to sharing answers among friends. Phones were allowed in the exam rooms.
  • Finally, and I don’t want to make this sound like an excuse, but the culture of Cambodians is very us oriented, rather than me oriented. In the classroom, students actively help each other. They are not out to succeed at the expense of their classmates. Exams are not a competition so much as a team exercise.

In 2014 the Ministry of Education Youth and Sport staged a well executed national crackdown on school exam cheats. They enacted a strategy designed to prevent teachers and examiners from publishing in advance the exam questions and answers. Given this was never going to be the whole answer, the Ministry also conducted body frisks on students entering the exam rooms. They confiscated cheat sheets and telephones. Lots of them! Finally, the authorities conducted much more rigorous supervision during the exams. Students who were used to whispering answers to friends remained quiet in 2014.

The crackdown in 2014 was a great step forward for a transparent and fair education system. Yes, many students learned that old-fashioned study and hard work are the most certain ways of graduating from grade 12. Ironically, the group who had in the short term had most to lose, were the tertiary institutions. Enrolments were down sharply for 2015, causing an unexpected cash flow problem for several universities.

See also: Exam result show dive in 2014.

See more education facts and figures.

Cambodian school system is still failing its students

Exam results! Who passed? Who missed out? In 2014 just under 40% of Grade 12 students passed their exams. How do we lift that?

Exam results! Who passed? Who missed out? In 2014 just under 40% of Grade 12 students passed their exams. How do we lift that?

Just prior to this month’s water Festival festivities which have made a welcome full-scale return to the Cambodian holiday scene, the Ministry of education, youth and sport released figures showing an extremely poor success rate for those high school students re-sitting their exams.

The Ministry has been making good progress over recent years to ensure that a greater percentage of Cambodian young people have full access to schools, and they have been working hard to lower the student to teacher ratio which is one of the highest in the world. The MOEYS website has impressed me for laying out the facts and figures of the successes, or challenges facing the education sector in Cambodia.

For one of the key performance indicators, the pass rate of students re-sitting their grade 12 exams –  those students who didn’t quite make the grade at the first attempt – is troubling. a lot of attention was being paid to this KPI because the pass rate for the grade 12 exams was down steeply compared to 2013 results. From the Phnom Penh Post:

Just 25.72 per cent of students passed the exam, the Ministry of Education officially announced yesterday, a result lower even than the dismal 30 per cent figure predicted by Prime Minister Hun Sen in the aftermath of the two-day test earlier this month.

The exam – usually rife with corruption and cheating – had been hailed as the cleanest in many years, thanks to a determined crackdown by the ministry, which deployed thousands of monitors from the anti-corruption unit to enforce strict regulations.

By way of comparison, 87 per cent of students passed in 2013.

The crackdown on cheating is a good thing, and so was the opportunity the government gave 90,000 Cambodian students to resit their exams if they missed first time.

Some 30,000 of these did not bother re-sitting however, but presumably the other 60,000 felt they had some chance. Here’s the report from the Phnom Penh Post.

Just 18 per cent of more than 60,000 hopeful students who re-sat the grade 12 national exams earlier this month have passed, according to official results released yesterday.

No students scored A or B grades, while one student scored a C grade. A total of 55 students received a D grade while the vast majority – 10,815 students – passed with the lowest E grade.

The 17.94 per cent pass rate was lower than the first tests in August, when a government blitz on cheating and corruption brought a dramatic drop from an 87 percent pass rate in 2013. Some 25 per cent passed the first round this year.

Prime Minister Hun Sen personally intervened to announce a re-sit for those who had failed the all-important exams, which are essential to pass for most university degree courses.

Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron, who is spearheading reforms, said yesterday that despite the lowly scores, the re-test was “worthwhile”.

“Even though we made a big effort to help students, just a few more students passed,” he said yesterday.

“[But] in terms of extra spending and the extra effort, it was still worthwhile because we helped more than 10,000 pass.”

Naron also said the dismal results for the second exam were “logical”, as the country’s top students had already passed during the first round.

“If [the percentage of students who passed] was higher than last time, we’d be very suspicious,” he said.

At Preah Sisowath High School in central Phnom Penh hundreds of students morosely listened to the announcement of results broadcast by loudspeaker yesterday afternoon.

“It’s not an easy year for me,” said an 18-year-old female student that declined to be named after learning she had failed.

“I knew that this would happen because I’m not a good student. Even though I tried to study hard this past month, I still couldn’t do any better than before.”

The crying teenager said she would have to repeat grade 12 again.

But for the few who succeeded, celebrations were ecstatic.

Lok Chanvisal, 18, who passed with an E grade, cheered and jumped around with his friends before quickly calling his father to pass on the good news.

“I was trying so hard in the last month and I never went out with my friends like I used to do,” he said, adding that he was ready to re-ignite his social life, starting last night. “It’s time for Halloween [partying], which coincides with our success.”

Education watchdogs, however, were critical that the government shelled out $2.5 million to organise the re-test, given that hardly any students passed.

“Allowing all the students who failed [to re-sit] was a waste of government budget. There should have been criteria so students who scored too low the first time [just] failed and did not get a retry,” San Chey, country coordinator for social accountability group ANSA-EAP, said.

“The scores indicate we should have great concern for the quality of education in Cambodia.”

CNRP whip Son Chhay, who also serves as deputy head of the parliamentary commission on finance and banking, said the government’s move was “very positive”.

Chhay added that he believed $250 could be reached well before 2018 if reforms were expedited. Getting civil servants back on side was “a question of survival” for the CPP, he said.

But unions representing public workers yesterday had no praise for the government.

“Why do they have to wait until 2018?” said Rong Chhun of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association.

Cambodian Independent Civil Servant Association head Kao Poeun said: “Despite the recent raises, their salaries are still low, so they won’t provide citizens with good public services. They will still try to make money through corruption.”

The results of students have clearly become a political battleground, for example between the teachers lobby and the Ministry – a battle over salaries and standards of teacher training.

By my calculations the eventual pass rate works out to be almost 40% – (26% on the first attempt, plus another 13% of the total on the second go.)  In other words 60% of those who enter grade 12 are for some reason not making the distance.

I can think of at least three root causes for this, and they include:

  1. Poor standards of teacher training. It is one thing to supply enough teachers, but as my figures show elsewhere on this blog, around half the teachers in Cambodia have themselves progressed no further than grade 12.
  2.  lack of teaching of study skills, and lack of textbooks or resources for students. It is one thing to attend classes in Cambodia, but many students don’t have the skills or resources to support what they learn in the classroom.
  3. Poverty. The current pass figures, low as they are, would be even lower if poor students – those from poor families – were even to make it through to grade 12. Many of those who do still need to work full time on the family farm or business simply to make ends meet with their family. Grade 12 students in many cases are forced by circumstances to treat school as their side activity; not their main one.

For more up to date figures from the Cambodian education sector – teacher student ratios and a teacher shortage in Siem Reap. Plus: How Qualified are the Teachers of Cambodia?