SEATTLE — In the United States, libraries are commonplace. Most schools from beginner to high school levels have their own dedicated libraries, as well as universities and individual towns. But in Cambodia, libraries are a coveted resource that many don’t have access too — or didn’t, up until now.
Sipar, a French NGO based in Cambodia for over 35 years, seeks to end this problem and promote education throughout Cambodia. Working with the Cambodian Education Ministry and several other organizations, Sipar has pushed to build more public libraries. Sipar’s executive director, Hok Sothik, claims that public libraries are the key to improving education in Cambodia — but the ones that exist are too far away from most Cambodians, or have little to offer.
This lack of libraries is due to the terrible Khmer Rouge regime that fell in 1979. During this oppressive genocide, the communist regime killed up to 2 million people. They especially targeted intellectuals and teachers in order to douse any form of education or thinking contrary to the regime’s principles. Thousands of others died from starvation, torture and disease.
The Khmer Rouge regime burned every library in Cambodia and almost all of the books, so the country had to start all over educationally after the regime ended. While it’s certainly come a long way since then, the overall literacy rate is currently at only 73.9 percent.
Over the years, Sipar has established projects for libraries in communities, prisons, schools, and hospitals, and now seeks to start a program for libraries in factories. The Ministry of Education in Cambodia predicts that over 8,470 libraries now exist throughout the country, but are still understocked and contain mostly textbooks.
Now, Sipar is trying a new tactic to improve education in Cambodia: mobile libraries. Smart Axiata, Cambodia’s leading cell phone provider, partnered with Sipar a couple years ago. Since then, Smart has sponsored six programs for Sipar. These projects range from supplying iPads to form mobile libraries to enabling factory workers with cell phone apps so they can access reading materials.
Given the increasing use of cell phones and technology in Cambodia, the partnership between Sipar and Smart is a match made in heaven.
Smart is dedicated to increasing education in Cambodia, not just through donations of technology, but also through inspiring innovation to improve literacy. The company holds digital learning events to increase knowledge of technology and learning. They’ve also held hackathons and business modeling competitions, and offer scholarships to students to further their education.
One of their latest hackathons produced an event called “Let’s Read!”, in partnership with The Asian Foundation. This event was a contest for Cambodian writers, asking for contestants to write children’s books based around the theme “Girls Can Do Anything.” The theme comes from the gender gap in Cambodia’s education, as fewer girls attend and complete school than boys.
Smart hopes that the event and the books will inspire young girls to stay in school and become leaders in Cambodia. While these books are only available in digital form for now, Sipar hopes to publish all of these books and distribute them as they have been doing around Cambodia.
The greatest challenge for increasing education in Cambodia is combatting the culture of reading. Many Cambodians leave school because of a “lack of awareness of the benefits of reading,” Sipar claims. They don’t always realize the benefit of reading and what education can do in the long term. But when children and even adult students come into contact with books through hard copies or tablets, they become hooked.
Sipar has left hundreds of donated books at their most actively engaged mobile hot spots to encourage readers to take the books home and read them for themselves. The organization and its partners hope that soon every child and adult in Cambodia will have access to a library of their own, and thus will have a strong education.
– Sydney Cooney