The effect of increased gasoline prices is trickling down to Cambodian children who are increasingly being forced to drop out of school to scavenge for their families, according to parents and an education official.
Cambodia is reeling from higher fuel prices amid concerns that continued unrest in the Middle East and Africa will limit oil production and send oil prices even higher.
The cost of gas rose nearly 16 percent to 5,200 riel (U.S. $1.30) per liter (0.26 gallon) this month from 4,500 riel (U.S. $1.12) per liter a year ago.
Rong Chhun, the director of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, says high gas prices have driven up food costs, leading parents to pull their children out of school.
Largely due to the rising cost of fuel, a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of fish now costs 20,000 riel (U.S. $5). The same amount cost 12,000 riel (U.S. $3) last year.
“The price increase is an alarming issue for people in general, but this is a major concern for those living in remote areas such as Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri provinces,” Rong Chhun said.
“This is really affecting the children of the poor in Cambodia.”
‘We barely survive’
Seng Chan Chu, a mother of seven children who lives in Kompong Thom province, says she must spend around 20,000 riel per day so her children can buy copies of their lessons from their teachers and pay for school fees.
She must spend an additional 40,000 riel (U.S. $10) per day for household expenses.
Seng Chan Chu earns only 100,000 riel (U.S. $25) a month.
“We barely survive. I have to ask some of my children to go to the field to catch crabs and other animals so we don’t have to buy everything from the market,” she said.
“I might not have enough money for them to go to school if this continues.”
Mao Vanndy, a construction worker with four children who lives in Phnom Penh, also says he is considering taking his children out of school to help support the family.
“The level of difficulty [we endure] adds up every day. I have to wait and see what will happen. If this situation continues, I will have to make them quit school,” he said.
According to a 2009 survey conducted by Cambodia’s Teachers’ Association, 36 percent of children quit school that year due to poverty and the high cost of living.
Helping to harvest
Children from impoverished families in Cambodia are also commonly called upon to leave school and spend their days laboring at farm chores during the fall harvest cycle.
When the school semester begins, many parents are still at work in the rice fields. They return their children to school only after the harvesting season, which means that the children are forced to miss the first semester and have trouble catching up.
Many families also require their children to work at home because they owe debt to other community members for business loans.
When the harvest season arrives, those who owe money are forced to take their children out of school to help in harvesting as a means of paying back the debt.
Last year, Rong Chhun called on the Cambodian government to enact educational reforms, which he said will be the key to reducing poverty.
“All Cambodian children should receive a basic education, but the current system does not correspond to the government’s plan. We are concerned about this issue and have called on the Ministry of Education several times to find a solution,” Rong Chhun said.
“The government should have a scholarship policy for poor students and should launch a campaign informing parents not to take their children out of school for labor,” he said.
“We want the government to truly reduce poverty and to provide opportunities for poor students to have access to quality education.”
Rising fuel costs
Fuel is a sensitive issue in the Southeast Asian region.
Fuel prices in Vietnam jumped by 18 percent in February, prompting motorists to stand in long lines at the pump to purchase gas before the hike went into effect and causing traffic congestion in cities.
In Vietnam, fuel is siphoned off and smuggled across the border to Cambodia to cash in on the higher prices, while gasoline smuggling from Thailand to Cambodia is also common.
Larger shipments of gasoline are smuggled to Cambodia via sea, while smaller shipments are taken across the border on land.
Authorities who catch smugglers often release them after being paid bribes.
In March, Vietnamese authorities announced a plan to limit the operating hours of filling stations along the border to only 12 hours beginning from 6 a.m. to combat smuggling.
Vehicles traveling from Vietnam to Cambodia will be allowed to buy enough fuel to travel only 50 to 100 kilometers (31 to 62 miles) under the plan, according to the VietNamNet Newspaper report.
In 2007, when gas prices soared in Burma, monks took to the streets of Rangoon to protest in what became known as the "Saffron Revolution," drawing thousands of people. The revolt was put down by security forces who killed at least 31 people and beat and detained hundreds.
Reported by Kim Peou for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Vuthy Huot. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.