In a tale of hope and resilience, Scott Neeson, the founder and executive director of the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF), stands as a beacon of change for disadvantaged children in Cambodia’s Stung Meanchey community.
Neeson, once a Hollywood mogul, has dedicated his life to the transformation of these children’s lives, driven by a belief in the power of education.
At the heart of CCF’s mission is an unwavering focus on education. Neeson’s vision is to empower children with knowledge and learning, equipping them with the tools to break free from the cycles of poverty and establish brighter futures.
“Currently, the CCF Program supports a total of 1,807 students, of which 689 are boys. However, there is growing concern about the high dropout rate among boys compared to girls in the community,” said Neeson.
In 2022 alone, the dropout rate among boys in the CCF programme was a concerning 12.13 per cent, with 99 boys leaving their studies.
This starkly contrasts with the girls’ dropout rate of 8.52 per cent, underscoring the pressing need to understand and address the factors behind this higher dropout rate among boys.
Neeson, affectionately greeted with hugs by children in his community schools, has established an intimate bond with these children.
He takes pride in remembering each student’s name, a testament to his unwavering commitment to their welfare.
Yet, he acknowledges the pressing challenge of keeping boys engaged in education, attributing this to the scarcity of male role models in a community where single mothers head 85 per cent of households.
“The girls show amazing retention rates. It’s generally not work, but perhaps video games, that lure the boys to leave,” Neeson disclosed to The Post.
He champions the cause of providing positive male figures to guide and inspire boys, aiding them in their transition to adulthood.
Despite the grim statistics, Neeson remains hopeful, voicing his intention to introduce more Cambodian men as mentors in the community.
“The boys, they don’t come out of the houses, they’re not interested, they keep to themselves. We need to address that to achieve real success. It’s a challenging task,” he admits.
With a young girl cradled in his arms, Neeson expresses his desire to contribute to the cause but also recognises his limitations as a Western male.
“I’d love to help, but I’m a Western man. They need a good Cambodian role model, a Cambodian father who can explain what it means to be a good father and support families. I can’t fill that role,” he laments.
He emphasises the need for a Khmer role model who could instil values of responsible fatherhood and family support within the cultural context of Cambodia.
He notes that currently, approximately 90 per cent of the students in one of their schools are girls, expressing concern about the absence of boys who instead prefer to stay indoors, forming small groups and playing video games.
“We start off early with a 50-50 split between boys and girls. By high school, it’s 80-20, and at university, it’s 80 per cent girls,” Neeson observes.
“I worry about what the future holds for the boys. I don’t know what more to do,” he adds.
According to Neeson, the mothers in the community have less influence over the boys. A girl, if told to attend school, would comply. A boy may or may not. The mothers are often reluctant to confront or antagonise them.
“We need to address this. We don’t want a society without good men. Not like us,” Neeson asserts.
The commitment of Vy Srey Nich, a 19-year-old girl from Prey Veng province, to her education amidst hardship stands testament to the transformative power of education.
Despite a break to financially support her family, Srey Nich has remained unwavering in her pursuit of education.
Srey Nich, currently studying in the 11th grade at Neeson Cripps Academy, is a beacon of hope for many.
“Even though I took a two-year break to work at a garment factory and help build a suitable home for my family, dropping out was never an option for me. I understood that education had the power to change not only my life but also the lives of my future children,” she told The Post.
While the CCF faces a challenge in maintaining male student enrolment in higher education, the issue is pervasive nationwide.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has voiced his concern over the diminishing enrolment of male students in higher education. In an attempt to understand the gravity of the issue, the Prime Minister has directed the Ministry of Education to conduct an in-depth investigation into the matter.
The concern was raised during a meeting with A-level students in the 2021-2022 academic years on February 2.
An examination of the recent high school diploma exam shed further light on the situation. A total of 125,739 candidates had applied, of whom 90,950 students passed the exam, accounting for 72.37 per cent of successful candidates.
In an interesting revelation, it was found that 77.52 per cent of these successful candidates were female students.
While the Prime Minister appreciated the increase in successful female candidates, he was simultaneously troubled by the dwindling performance of male students.
He expressed that the higher number of female students could be attributed to a preference among male students to socialise, while female students are often more diligent in their studies.
“It could also stem from the traditional expectation for women to marry and have children after graduation,” he added.
“We observe that at the undergraduate level, women constitute more than 50 per cent, but at the master’s degree level, women account for 33 per cent, and at the doctoral level, there are sometimes very few women,” the Prime Minister remarked.
He emphasised that efforts should be made to encourage young male students to pursue education, given the significant difference in this gap.
In response to the Prime Minister’s remarks, Ros Soveacha, the spokesman for the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport asked for a reference to the original speech delivered by SamdechTecho.
“The Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport is currently examining this matter. We will provide you with further updates in the coming days,” Ros Soveacha told The Post.
Back in the Stung Meanchey community, the CCF continues to ensure the educational well-being of children. They offer physical and nutritional support while making strides in providing secure housing for families.
“We have constructed over 500 houses in the community, specifically for the parents of these children, to facilitate their access to education,” Nicky Ward, head of marketing and grants at CCF, told The Post.
Ward points out that the lack of secure housing acts as a barrier to keeping these children enrolled in school. With inadequate accommodation, they also face challenges in accessing food and clean water.
According to Ward, the model focuses on providing high-quality education, while also constructing supportive community and family structures to ensure the children’s success.
The story of the Cambodian Children’s Fund, under the stewardship of Scott Neeson, is a testament to the transformative power of education.
Despite the challenges, the fight for a brighter future for the children of Cambodia continues, one child at a time.