Growing up in Siem Reap, a provincial town in northern Cambodia, Manrath Kong defied the odds that often condemn the daughters of lower class families to a life of illiteracy and poverty. Her parents divorced when she was only three, and with two younger siblings, she had the additional burden of helping her family survive. Manrath could easily have dropped out of school and begun working at the type of low-skilled jobs that keep so many Cambodians mired in poverty. She credits her education with helping her get to where she is today. At age 25, she is the local manager of KruKhmer in Siem Riep, an organization dedicated to empowering children – especially girls just like herself – to get an education and learn skills that will allow them to become economically self-sufficient. Her work is her passion, because she has lived their life – she knows where they come from and where they need to go.
In 2003. with her high school diploma in hand, the address of some distant relatives in her pocket, and a knowledge of Japanese, English and Thai (learned through classes at Siem Riep’s Wat Bo Pagoda) 18 year-old Manrath traveled to Phnom Penh to find a suitable job to support her family and to pursue her dream of earning a college degree. “The first time I arrived in Phnom Penh,” she recalls, “I was overwhelmed by the city so full of modern things. Everyone looked strange to me as I walked along the road to my relative’s house. I told myself, ‘I have to be brave and go forward without giving up so I can bring change back to help my village.” When she got to her relative’s house, however, she faced her first setback when she found that she was not really wanted.
Instead of having a safe place to land while she looked for a job, she had to go out and find someplace to live.
Manrath’s languages helped her to land a job teaching English and Japanese to children and adults at an NGO called Cambodia Development of Education. She found that she enjoyed teaching, but also realized that education had to go beyond languages and literacy in order to make a difference in their lives. Her own plans for college fell by the wayside, as she struggled to send money back to her family to ensure that her siblings could continue their education. After four years, Manrath moved back to Siem Riep, which is best known for its proximity to the famous Angkor Wat Temple. Her plan was to continue teaching and to pursue her Bachelor’s Degree in Rural Development at Angkor University.
Then, in 2008, an angel appeared. Manrath was introduced to a Japanese woman, Chehiro Sinoda, 32, who had come to Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat. Thanks once again to her languages, Manrath became Ms. Chehiro’s guide, introducing her to Siem Riep and its people and surroundings. Impressed with Manrath’s dedication and passion for education and helping the poor, Ms. Sinoda decided to set up an NGO to help turn Manrath’s vision into reality. The result was KruKhmer. The organization is in its infancy and is still developing its training program, which runs from 3-5 months. Currently 12 young women and 2 men are enrolled and the total is 197 trainees as of 30th September 2010.
KruKhmer’s goal is not so much to provide a formal education, as to create a support system that will allow young people – especially girls – as well as illiterate adults and the disabled to become literate, study and achieve their maximum potential. This means learning business skills and foreign languages that will help them overcome the obstacles posed by a rapidly modernizing economy. Entrepreneurship classes, for example, teach students how to use skills they already have – like sewing or knitting – and the raw materials available to them to make products that they can sell. A small business selling clothing or soap is often the first step to developing confidence and rising out of poverty.
10.9 million Cambodians (almost 78%) live on less than $2 a day, and only 57% of children achieve a 5th grade education. Facing statistics like these, Manrath continually asks herself, “What else can I do to help these people? How can I help increase literacy and help families raise their income?” Since most rural areas, including Siem Riep, have very limited opportunities for education, she decided to start an English and Japanese class in her home where she teaches local children free of charge in the evenings and on weekends.
In early 2009, Manrath was at the local CheyvormanVII Hospital visiting a friend who had just given birth, when she saw a recently orphaned boy who was crying inconsolably. Manrath cried too as she remembered the day that her parents divorced and her father left the family. After making some inquiries, Manrath made the unconventional decision to adopt the boy, named Kong Sovannmara, as her own son. As a single woman, she knew this went very much against Cambodian tradition, but in her heart, she knew she had made the right choice.
“I can live with peace and a clear conscience even if others judge me for adopting a child as a single woman. What I have done is to save a little boy who desperately needs warmth and caring from his parents, especially from his mother, and that’s who I am now,” Manrath declares firmly. “I am so happy and excited to be a mother,” she adds. “The saddest thing for me would have been to leave him at the orphanage by himself just because I was worried about what other people would think of me.”
In adopting her son, Manrath Kong has brightened the future of one child. But through her work at KruKhmer, she is brightening the future of a whole generation of children in Siem Riep.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.
Interviewed by Sarvina Kang