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For many Cambodian women, schooling was either a luxury denied to them or taken away by the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Along with the gifts of livestock and training in their care, Heifer's literacy classes are now helping women to be considered their husbands' equals as they improve family incomes, health and nutrition.

By Chris Kenning, World Ark contributor
Photos by Joe Garrison

Salvaging Hope
Sao Pao, 45, listens during one of Heifer's values-based literacy program classes.

DONG THOM VILLAGE , Cambodia— For most of her life, Lok Channy rose with the sun. As the first rays lit the rice paddies, footpaths and thatched huts of her rural village, she roused herself from a creaky bamboo-slat floor for a bowl of rice before plowing muddy fields, tending animals and cooking over wood fires until dark.

Life was a struggle. Poor soil in small, rain-fed rice paddies often left her family hungry during the dry season. Sickness was common and health care distant. There was no time or money for school, especially for Lok and other village girls whose education wasn’t a priority.

It left her feeling helpless to improve her circumstances—particularly after marrying and having children of her own.

"My family's living conditions were poor, and I (didn't) think anything would change," she recalled recently outside her home in Svay Rieng, one of Cambodia's poorest provinces. "I had no knowledge of how to solve our difficulties of living."

But today she can read, write and make basic calculations thanks to a yearlong Heifer literacy class, which has taught her to improve rice yields, better treat children's illnesses, understand school enrollment forms and help run a village credit and savings group.

And working in concert with other facets of Heifer's program, which provides animals, seeds and training, the literacy classes' themes of women’s empowerment helped broaden her traditional role at home and transform her view of her own ability to change her life.

"I decided to start this small store," Lok said, proudly showing the plastic bags holding cooking oil, batteries and lard she sells at an informal home shop for extra income. "I can read now, about medicines and growing rice, and calculate sales at the market."

In a country plagued by decades of civil war, extreme poverty, corruption and suffering, Lok Channy is among the hundreds benefiting from the latest addition to Heifer's community empowerment program, whose holistic, mul- tifaceted self-help approach has helped 8,820 vulnerable families in 188 poor, rural communities since 1999.

Heifer's values-based literacy class, added in 2010 to help leverage Heifer's existing array of assistance from animals to self-help savings groups, has served nearly 1,900 people, mostly women. The classes offer some of the country's most impoverished families a crucial new tool to improve diets, health and family incomes.

"Women are often the most vulnerable, and building real skills and social capital can help lift them and their families out of poverty," said Keo Keang, Heifer Cambodia’s country director.


Driving east on Highway 1 out of Phnom Penh, the road to Svay Rieng province becomes dotted with ox carts and rickety motorbikes, some hauling pigs to market. Along the road, in rice paddies that are watery-brown with monsoon rain, men walk behind cows pulling wooden plows.

At a ferry crossing, one bombed by the U.S. during the Vietnam War and portrayed in the film The Killing Fields, women sell piles of fried insects and knockoff sunglasses.

Svay Rieng is one of the nation’s poorest provinces, government statistics show. It's a rural, isolated place of lowland rice paddies and traditional thatch and wood-plank homes built on stilts. Homes, connected by raised paths rutted with motorbike tracks, rarely have electricity or sanitation.

Salvaging Hope
Lok Channy discusses her small retail business while making a sale as her grandmother, Lear Youn, acts as the cashier. Lok learned basic business management and math skills as part of her participation in a local Heifer self-help group.

Here, most residents are subsistence farmers. One-third of the farmers have less than two acres of land, often low-quality rice plots fed solely by rainwater during the wet season. Because families rely on these plots to feed their large families, hunger during the dry season is common, as are waterborne diseases and malaria.

Although outside aid has helped, one-third of Cambodia’s population lives on 60 cents a day—deep poverty that is partly rooted in dark decades that began during the 1970s reign of the Khmer Rouge, which left nearly two million dead from starvation, disease and execution.

"There is high migration because the poverty is very bad, so in some villages there are mostly children and older people," Keang said.

In Toeu, 42, who lives amid the sugar palms and rice paddies of Bung Kriel village, said she grew up in this province in a large family crammed into a tiny thatch hut, in a childhood spent fleeing war with the Khmer Rouge and battling poor sanitation and nutrition. As a girl, she also faced additional disadvantages.

She spent only a few years in primary school in a culture where women often are told they do not need to learn. It's a common attitude in a nation that once relied on Buddhist temples for education where only boys were sent. Even today, public schools are scarce in rural areas and often underfunded, said Makara Orn, who heads Heifer's literacy efforts.

"Many women also think they don’t need it, they will do housework and take care of children. Culturally, it’s not seen as necessary to study," she said, pointing to statistics showing that in Cambodia only 71 percent of women are literate, compared to 85 percent of men.

In, who is married and has five children, said her difficult rural life has improved substantially with help from Heifer, which since 2007 provided a cow, vegetable seeds, fruit tree saplings and training on how to keep animals and crops healthier by adopting changes such as adding mosquito netting to the animal shelter. Her husband cares for sick village animals, a Heifer-taught skill and, all told, family income has risen from $200 a year to $500 a year.

But In said her inability to read is a critical missing piece, and she plans to take the new literacy class to play a stronger role in family and village decision-making.

"I would like to be able to read better for myself and my family," she said.


On a hot July day in the Svay Rieng village of Ampou Prey, 17 women sat on tiles in the shade of the village chief's home, located off a reddish dirt road where several motorbikes were parked.

Shooing flies and nursing children, the women—the majority illiterate, the rest with limited skills— sat hunched over literacy workbooks, turning pages filled with cartoon illustrations and Khmer vocabulary, spelling and math exercises.

Salvaging Hope
Learning facilitator Lok Sareng, 42, instructs her students during a Heifer literacy program class. Participants break into small groups to discuss the day’s lessons and to work through reading and writing problems.

Teacher Lok Sareng walked in front of a small easel, teaching the women about the importance of participating in village decision making—one of the dozen themes from nutrition and income to gender equity and education that undergird each lesson. Dividing the class into groups, she asked them to write down and discuss the benefits of participation on large sheets of paper.

"During a meeting with the men [women are] afraid to speak up," Lok Sareng said to the class. "If a woman doesn’t want to share, how do you get her to speak up?"

"You give them encouragement, say your ideas are important to us," one woman responded, before the class moved on to a game teaching the concept of opposites and a song about the importance of hygiene.

Developed over several years and put into place in 2010, the values based literacy classes have grown to more than 100, led by 44 Heifer-trained literacy facilitators—typically a more educated village woman who must pass a writing test. These women earn $25 a month, about half the salary of a public schoolteacher.

The class meets for two hours, three times a week, with breaks for rice planting in summer and harvest in November. Classes use a series of Heifer-developed literacy workbooks that start with the alphabet and simple addition and move to complex passages, multiplication and division.

Each is infused with Heifer's 12 Cornerstones, or selfhelp themes that include women's empowerment, self-confidence and equality. For example, one book has reading lessons that include drawings of women sweeping, cooking and caring for children; it then shows men helping around the house, too. It addresses domestic violence on another page, something that many women in this part of the world experience.

"It's not only learning to read, it is learning knowledge for living," Orn said. "Some men complain that their wives are busy taking [the class], but most don't mind when they see it helps."

Orn and Sareng said challenges have included persuading women of literacy's relevance to their rural lives, finding and keeping village teachers, locating proper classroom space and students who struggle because of undiagnosed vision problems.

"Some participants don’t know anything, so you really have to encourage them. Some must be taught how to put pens to paper," Sareng said. "The first couple books are difficult."

One of the students, Te Ken, 53, a mother of four, had largely forgotten how to read and write from early childhood during the Khmer Rouge era, when they closed her school. Now, she’s re-learning and brushing up on math.

"It was difficult at first. I wanted to quit," she said. "But I'm glad I haven't."


In an open dirt courtyard filled with dogs, flies and the smell of rice and smoke from cooking fires, Theng Thy hauled a metal pot full of rice into her kitchen located under her traditional stilted home, hemmed in by a garden and shaded by banana and mango trees.

It's clear the family is prospering—there are a couple of motorbikes, earthen ovens for making rice wine, a fish pond near a healthy garden and an old TV that runs on car batteries. But it wasn't always like this before Heifer's literacy class and self-help program.

"I was so worried because my children kept going without food," said Theng Thy, whose family was forced off her land by the Khmer Rouge, and, when she was older, had to collect snails and wild greens to eat.

One year after joining Heifer's self-help groups, which provided piglets, lemon and mango trees and fish in a pond, she joined the literacy class. Suddenly, she could read instructions for digging an optimal-sized pond for fish farming and use math skills to stop overpaying for food at the market. She learned how to better feed chickens so they were fatter and healthier. She studied the process for making rice wine as a business.

Salvaging Hope
When not in training or classes, members of Heifer's self-help groups are busy planting the year's rice crop. Many Cambodians often rely on the monsoon season to grow their year's supply of the staple food.

Learning to read "has been a very big help," she said, noting that family income has risen from 2.5 million riels, or about $625, to 6 million riels, or about $1,500. The extra money has allowed the family to make chicken and fish a daily staple, instead of a rare treat. And her family built a tin-roofed home with a dedicated outhouse with a ceramic floor toilet next door.

She's not alone. More than 1,050 have passed the test at the end of the class so far—and current and former students say their newfound skills have had a significant effect on their daily lives.

For example, they can read Heifer newsletters that outline practical ways to improve animal management, teach safer sanitation practices to avoid illness and include methods for growing bananas or making money-saving fertilizer.

At makeshift local markets, where women sell chickens, vegetables and rice, an ability to calculate numbers keeps them from overpaying, underselling or getting cheated. And when they have ideas for micro-businesses, such as selling coconut cakes, raising fish or growing sugarcane, they say they can read about hygienic cooking practices, optimal pond sizes or techniques to increase yields.

Ros Saleng, one of the women in the class, is a 43-year-old mother of three. She said she goes home every night after class to share what she’s learned. Already, they've started selling market vegetables and are seeing less sickness in their cows. They have also expanded their rice crop. The extra income allows them to buy and eat more meat.

"It is helping me learn about businesses and better ways to grow rice and raise animals," she said. "And the group has great solidarity."

Kert Reun, a 68-year-old midwife who has helped women give birth in thatched huts for decades, never imagined she would attend school at her age. But learning the basics has opened new doors, she said. Now she's reading health materials about safer childbirths, and recently put to use new antiseptics to help avoid infection during a recent birth in Dong Thom village.

"I saw others taking [the class]. I wanted to learn to read and write, too. People said, 'At that age?' But I said yes, I can learn. It helped me in my job. I could learn about how to be safer, use antiseptics and other things," she said.

And because of the women's empowerment themes— and the ritual of gathering three times a week to discuss them—more women are in leadership roles in homes and villages. There's greater gender equality and less domestic violence. Women also are increasingly seeing the importance of sending their own children to school, especially the girls.

As part of Heifer's holistic approach, family incomes have risen from an average of $237 a year to $871 a year, accord ing to a 2011 study by Heifer among the more than 11,000 members of 662 Heifer self-help groups in Cambodia.

Few have seen such benefits more starkly than Lok Channy, whose family income has risen from one million riels a year to four million, or from about $250 to $1,000. Learning about gender equity in the class has helped change her role in the family.

"In household chores, now we help each other. Before, I didn't send my children to school. Now I understand how studies are important so I send my children to school. And now I can do the business, to make record of what we buy and sell and profit. I can read how to raise animals better, so we could expand the number we have," she said.

She said among many participants in her small village, meat is now a daily staple instead of a rare treat. Fewer men are forced to leave for the city for weeks or months at a time to seek work as a low-paid laborer or factory worker. And in daily village life, she said, women "express ideas" and have leadership roles.

And along with passing on the gifts of vegetable seeds, saplings, pigs and training to others, Lok is using what she learned to help start other literacy classes in other villages where the needs are high—a replication method that allows Heifer’s efforts to multiply.

"I feel very happy I can help other people. I never dreamed before I would be able to, that I would become a donor," she said. "Every day I am happy about our life."

Chris Kenning is a newspaper reporter and freelance journalist from Louisville, Ky. His travels have taken him to Africa, Central America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where he has reported on issues such as land mines in Cambodia, poverty in Nicaragua and curable blindness in Syria.

Small Savings,
Big Changes

By Chris Kenning

BANG VILLAGE, PREY VANG PROVINCE, Cambodia—As pigs rooted nearby in the monsoon heat and humidity, 19 women and men sat cross-legged on plastic mats shaded by banana trees, forming a half-circle around a locked green metal box.

Salvaging Hope
Chom Thoun and his daughter, Chom Soriya, age 6, talk about their participation in the local Heifer project.

The group hushed as one woman pulled out a small key, opening the box to reveal tiny stacks of neatly bound riels, the Cambodian currency. Each of the rice-farming family members knew how difficult it had been to save—but were equally aware of its power to improve their lives.

After an approval from the group, Sao Chanara handed fellow savingsgroup member Neang Vanny, age 50, a $25 loan to buy feed at about 2 percent interest rate—far lower than the 10-20 percent interest or even higher rates she would get from lenders or banks that charge fees or require collateral.

"I will buy feed for my piglets, and then I can sell them and pay back the loan," said Neang, who was also facilitating a meeting in which members made savings deposits and took loans for seeds, fertilizer, medical care, food, school expenses or micro-businesses. "It’s good because we help each other."

Heifer International’s self-help savings and credit groups, which have grown to more than 600 groups in 13 Cambodian provinces, are designed to sidestep exorbitant middlemen and scant credit options in rural areas to help families save. Although it’s an old concept, used from Mali to India, it’s proving a powerful help to isolated, poor villagers in Cambodia.

Although it can be initially difficult to persuade villagers their money won’t be lost or stolen, members all know each other and quickly warm to the idea. Defaults are rare, and if borrowers struggle to repay a loan they're given more time. At the Bang Village group, the mostly female members say the system empowers them to play a bigger role in family affairs, while it also eases financial strains that can help fuel domestic violence.

"There are fewer broken pots at homes," Neang said.

Heifer's savings groups have pooled $128,079, and now country staff are working to link smaller savings groups together, combining richer and poorer groups into cooperatives that would allow for larger loans and more ambitious projects, said Heifer Country Director Keo Keang.

But the Prey Vang group for now is made up of 22-25 participants who save 50 cents to $1 a month, giving them 930,000 riels, or about $232— enough for five members to take out three-month loans. Each member is trained in handling balance sheets and financial statements.

Rice farmer Sek Meth, for example, said he has used a loan to buy supplies for a rice-wine business that adds extra income for food, better housing and motorbike fuel to get around. Lok Channy, who is a member of a different savings group, used a loan to purchase stock for an informal store at her home selling oil, lard, batteries and cigarettes—income that played a role in easing longstanding family poverty.

And at a group in neighboring Svay Rieng province, members have saved about $600, which residents have used for loans for businesses making cakes, handicrafts and bamboo beds, as well as providing feed, fertilizer and rice plows.

One member, Chom Thoun, a 40-year-old farmer, saves 3,000 riels a month. He has used $50 loans to start new vegetables and sugarcane and has $46 saved in the bank.

"Before we had to borrow from the middleman, it was 15-20 percent a month," he said. "Savings groups are important for us."

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