One day, the thing that Sacty had feared for so long finally happened. The sun is setting over the rooftops in the floating village, and the river is full of boats on their way home. Sacty’s mother has a serious look on her face when she sits down on the floor beside Sacty, who has just turned twelve.
“You’re going to have to stop going to school,” she says. We have no choice. I can’t afford the school fees, and we need your help to work and earn money,” continues her mother.
Sacty wants to cry, but she swallows her tears. She doesn’t want to make her mother even more sad by showing her feelings. On the inside, she is devastated, and doesn’t know what to do. All she says to her mother is: “I understand.”
Sacty lives in a small village that floats on water for six months of the year. The children travel to school by boat, and most families earn their living by fishing. Then, the water disappears and the lake around the houses shrinks and becomes a narrow river. Suddenly, the houses are far above the ground on rickety, six-metre-high stilts. The children run up and down to their houses on narrow ladders.
The people here live simply, without electricity or running water. But Sacty’s family is one of the poorest. Her father abandoned the family just before she was born and he never came back. Since then, Sacty’s mother has had to fight hard for the family’s survival.
“I had to start working again when you were only ten days old,” Sacty’s mother has told her many times.
When anyone asks about her father, Sacty usually says that he is dead. It feels as though he is. But she knows that he is alive, and has a new family. It hurts to think that he doesn’t care about her. The worst thing is when the neighbouring children tease Sacty.
“You’re a poor orphan, you’ve only got a mother,” they say sometimes.
It makes Sacty sad, but it also makes her angry. She decided early to put all her efforts into her schooling, so that nobody could look down on her. And she’s never missed one piece of homework, although she does housework before and after school, and goes out on the boat with her mother to help with the fishing.
And now she has to quit school. Have all her efforts been in vain?
First day at work
Sacty starts work a few weeks before her class do their exam to move up to the next year group. It hurts, but she doesn’t complain. Her mother has just been ill and had to borrow money for medicine, so now they have less money than ever. She wants to help out, and she knows that her family will be angry and disappointed if she doesn’t.
Early in the morning, Sacty waits with her mother and big sister at the roadside near the river. A truck stops and they climb up onto the back. Many more children and adults from the village are crammed in, on their way to work in the fields. The truck skids around on the narrow dirt track, and Sacty realises that soon they’re going to pass her school. She glances cautiously from under the brim of her hat and sees her friends, wearing their school uniforms. Sacty is sure they can see her too, but she doesn’t dare wave. She’s so ashamed. It feels like she has let them down, and her teachers too. What will they think of her now?
All day, Sacty harvests sweet potatoes and lays them out to dry. After many hours in the burning sun, she is exhausted on the journey home. Her back aches and her arms feel heavy as lead. Her hands are black with earth, and covered in blisters. Still, she can’t get to sleep that night. She lies still as a statue on the floor, listening to her sister’s breathing slowing down. Once Sacty is sure everyone is sleeping, she finally allows herself to cry, in silence, so she doesn’t wake anyone.
Where is Sacty?
At first, the teachers think Sacty is ill. But after a few days without hearing anything from one of their most gifted students, they ask her classmates.
“She has quit school,” says one girl.
“She works with her mother and sister now,” explains another.
One of the young teachers, Srey Leap, has another important job alongside her work as a teacher. She works for Room to Read as a social mobilizer for the poorest girls. Srey Leap knows that Sacty’s family are struggling, and she suspects that Sacty has been forced to quit school. She asks the headteacher to arrange a meeting with the village leader from the floating village. They need everyone to get involved, to make sure Sacty can return to school before its too late.
The village elder is an important source of support for the school and Room to Read. If he asks the family to reconsider their decision, there is a chance they will change their minds.
The village leader, the headteacher of the school and Srey Leap visit Sacty’s mother when she’s alone at home. They ask why Sacty isn’t in school.
“It’s too expensive to buy the uniform, materials, and pay school fees. I really want her to get an education, but it’s impossible,” her mother explains.
The village elder talks about how important education is. And Srey Leap says that Room to Read can help Sacty.
“She can get a scholarship to pay her school fees and almost all her costs. But only if her family members will promise to support Sacty in her studies. And there’s no time to lose. If she misses the exam, she’ll have to repeat the year. In that case there is a major risk that she’ll never come back.
Her mother promises to think it over. She doesn’t tell Sacty that she’s had visitors.
For the next few nights, it is Sacty’s mother who has trouble sleeping.
One morning when Sacty boards the truck, she feels even sadder than usual. She knows that this afternoon, her friends are going to do the entry exam for Year 7. When they climb down at the field, Sacty’s mother turns to her suddenly.
“Is it too late? Have you missed the exam?”
“No, there’s still time, a few hours,” says Sacty, surprised.
“I’ve decided,” says her mother. “You’re going back to school!”
Before Sacty has a chance to grasp what’s going on, her mother has run out onto the road and hailed a motorcycle taxi. She shouts to the driver to get Sacty to school as fast as he can.
Sacty arrives at the last minute and everyone is astonished and delighted to see her. She feels nervous when the exam paper is laid on the desk in front of her. Will she be able to pass the test after missing so many lessons?
Two days later she finds out the answer. Sacty has answered every question correctly, and she can start Year 7! The minute she gets home she shares her good news. Her mother is pleased and proud.
“That’s wonderful,” she says. “Don’t be ignorant like me. I want you to learn things.”
International Women’s Day is celebrated on the 8th of March every year, all over the world. Sacty’s school is organising a big party for girls’ rights, together with Room to Read. The whole village is invited, as well as journalists and guests of honour from the city.
The headteacher has asked Sacty to share her story. When the day arrives, she is standing beside the stage, clutching the paper her speech is written on tightly. She’s shaking and feels sick. Her heart feels like it’s going to jump out of her chest, and when she hears her name it feels impossible to climb the few steps onto the stage. But all of a sudden there she is, standing with a microphone in her hand.
When Sacty begins to speak the room is so quiet you could hear a pin drop. The tears begin to roll down her cheeks, but she carries on.
“I have never met my own father. I often feel alone and abandoned and my family struggle to survive. That’s why I had to give up my education. But thanks to my teachers and Room to Read, I have been given the chance to continue my schooling. Education is the most important thing of all. When I was forced to quit school and work in the fields, I missed school so much. I thought my life was over.”
A better future
As Sacty comes to the end of her speech, almost everyone in the audience is crying too. The other students, her friends, and their parents. Even the headteacher, the village leader, the journalists and the important politicians from the city are drying their eyes.
“If I manage to complete my education and become a teacher, I plan to return to the village where I was born and pass on my knowledge to other children,” concludes Sacty. The applause is loud and long, and everyone is smiling. Her mother runs up and hugs her.
“I had no idea you could speak so beautifully, and in front of so many strangers,” she says. “I am so happy to have such a clever child!”
Many other parents come forward too, to thank her and praise her.
“You really are brave,” says one mother.
Sacty hopes that she has inspired many other parents to allow their daughters to complete their schooling. With support from Room to Read, Sacty hopes to be able to graduate from Year 12, and then study to become a teacher. But she is always afraid of being forced to quit school.
“My grandfather keeps nagging me, saying that I should quit school and start working again, but my mother refuses. I don’t have a father, but my mother is strong and takes care of me so that I can get an education. I’m going to build a better future for me and my whole family!”
Almost everyone who lives in Kompong Phluk, the floating village, fishes. The village is on the edge of Tonle Sap Lake, one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes. When the water is at its lowest point, in May, the lake shrinks to an area of 250,000 hectares. When the monsoon rains come in June, the water levels in the Mekong River rise, and the Tonle Sap River flows into the lake and widens it to cover over 1 million hectares.
Sometimes when the weather is rainy and stormy, the water level rises so high that the houses become flooded. The houses fill up with water and any villagers who can afford it raise the level of their floor. They move all their belongings up high, and sleep in hammocks near the ceiling. Others who own large boats move into their boats until the water levels recede.
The poorest people, like Sacty’s family, have neither big boats nor money to raise their floors. Their homes and everything they own gets destroyed and they have nowhere to live until they have managed to build a new house.
Room to Read focuses on girls
In Kompong Phluk, girls sometimes have to quit school around the age of 12. Their parents can’t afford the school fees, uniforms and materials. Instead, they want their daughters’ help with housework, fishing and farming. Some girls are also sent to the big cities to work as maids or street sellers. Once they get there, some fall victim to traffickers.
So far, 80 girls in Kompong Phluk have received scholarships and support from Room to Read. In Cambodia as a whole, over 2,000 girls have been helped. This has meant a lot to them and their families. And what’s more, they become role models for their friends, both girls and boys. The support exists for the poorest girls who are very motivated to study. Their parents have to sign a contract, promising to support their daughter in her studies.