FIVE days a week, between four and six in the afternoon, teenage boys and girls troop into a makeshift classroom beneath a traditional wooden house on stilts in Mittapheap village, Russey Keo district, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital city.
There are chairs and tables, but not enough for the 21 pupils (between 11-15 years of age). Late comers have to share seats. Those who have nowhere else to park their younger siblings bring them to class. When it rains, street dogs stray in, triggering shrieks from the smaller children perched atop tables or squeezed into chairs.
Not quite the ideal setting for learning. But for youngsters like Srey On, 15, the informal literacy class, run by Khemara, Cambodia's first indigenous NGO, offers the chance of a future denied to their parents. Khemara was started by Cambodian women in 1991.
Srey's father drives a motorcycle taxi. Her mother sells vegetables on the street. Three years ago, she was studying in a government school, But her family could not afford to pay the unofficial fee (bribe) of Riel 300 (1 US$ = 4000 Riel) each day. So she dropped out. But the literacy class has given her another chance. (In Cambodia, government teachers are paid very badly (less than US$ 30 a month) and most try to cam extra money by charging all unofficial fee.)
"Now, I do housework in the morning, and come to class in the afternoon. I love it here, especially the hygiene classes. One day, I hope to get a job in a garment factory or an NGO," says the teenager, the oldest among seven children. Like many others, Srey comes to class carrying a small child, her two-year-old sister.
Cambodia's educational system was devastated in the late 1970s when the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79) closed schools, damaged books and executed thousands of teachers. The regime viewed teachers and other intellectuals as potential sources of socialist, agrarian society where "rice fields were books, and hoes were pencils".
Thousands of professionals, including teachers, also fled the country. Ever since then, efforts to revive the education system have been severely hamstrung by shortage of funds and trained personnel.
Today, as this conflict-scarred, largely agricultural country in Southeast Asia tries to rebuild itself, poor education remains a critical stumbling block, slowing down labour productivity and weakening Cambodia's ability to create a sound economic base.
The gravity of the situation is heightened by demographics -- almost half the country's 13 million-plus population is under 20 -- and aggravated by widespread corruption.
Even conservative socio-economic surveys report that on an average, unofficial monthly school fees at primary levels is Riels 500 per pupil That goes up to Riels 8000 at lower secondary and Riels 10, 200 at upper secondary level, acknowledges Cambodia's 'Education for All National Plan (2003-2015)', an official report.
Such informal levies have added to the complex dynamics of poverty, culture and geography barring Cambodian girls from equal access to education.
Despite the Education Reform in Cambodia in 2001, and encouraging trends in girls' enrolment in recent years, adult literacy rates arc significantly higher for men (82.9 per cent) than for women (61.1 per cent). More than one in three persons over 25 years of age has not attended school and, of these, 73 per cent are women, according to official statistics.
"Very few girls complete secondary schooling at all. This limits the pool of women candidates eligible for higher education, professional and administrative careers, and impedes efforts to encourage women to become teachers whose support encourages girls' enrolment and completion of primary and secondary schooling," notes the report.
So what is the way out of this vicious cycle?
There isn't a quick-fix solution, stresses Koy Phallany, the current Khemara representative, while pointing to her organisation's catalytic role in advancing women and girls in Cambodian society through community mobilisation and informal education with flexible timings.
The initiative was launched way back in the early '90s with international donor support. In the beginning, there were four literacy classes with 100 children between the ages of 10 and 18. Gradually, the number of classes went up to 14.
It was not easy to convince illiterate parents -- mostly migrants from the countryside making out a living as loaders, vendors or motorcycle taxi drivers -- to send their children to literacy classes, but Khemara's activist-teachers doggedly went house to house, hard-selling the idea of education, especially for girls.
"We would begin by asking them to list the benefits of education. Gradually, many of them started saying that education enabled people to read road signs and books in the village library," recalled Sam Rany, a teacher associated with the literacy project.
Flexible timings were instituted at the request of parents. Another challenge was figuring out how to teach children who were in the same age-group but had different levels of learning.
"We ignored the age factor, and divided them, instead, into groups - level one, level two and so on. Level one consisted of those who could not read or write, level two had children who could read a little but not write and level three had those who could read and write a little," says Rany.
Right from the beginning, the emphasis was on group discussions and not lectures. For those at ground zero, educationally, television and audio tapes were used to make learning more of an exciting experience. Other incentives included books, pens, nutritional supplements and a transport allowance.
Over the years, hundreds of children have become literate and numerate through Khemara's efforts. Out of these, over 100 have rejoined the formal stream.
The take-away lessons from Khemera's literacy classes go beyond the three Rs: students have internalised key concepts in diverse areas such as the culture of peace and personal hygiene. Given Cambodia's blood-spattered history, lessons on peace are meant to equip youngsters with values that shrink from conflict and knowledge of personal hygiene translates into drinking boiled water, keeping one's home and surroundings clean etc.
The literacy project in poor neighbourhoods has also served as an entry point to a dialogue between local authorities, communities, students and parents, and generated an atmosphere that encourages children from poor communities to go to class.
But ironically, just as the idea of learning has begun to win more converts, donor support is drying up. And there is a real danger that Khemara's literacy initiative will go the way of so many other pilot projects in this aid-dependent country.
"The number of literacy classes has come down from 14 to one. Donors have other thematic priorities," says Phallany.
The future looks uncertain. The only silver lining is that the pioneering work done by Khemara in Russey Keo and neighbouring villages has whetted the appetite for education in poor communities and kindled the ambitions of girls like Srey.