Increasing numbers of Cambodian children are getting an education thanks to the efforts of a Japanese Catholic priest.
The Rev. Fumio Goto, 85, has helped to build 18 schools in Cambodia so far and is looking forward to the completion of a 19th this winter. Each facility serves about 200 children in impoverished rural districts.
Goto, a member of the Society of Divine Word congregation of missionaries, heads AMATAK House of Cambodia, a nonprofit organization created in 1995 and based at Kichijoji Catholic Church in Tokyo. He travels to Cambodia about twice a year to check on projects.
The new school, the Norodom Ranariddh Elementary School in Kampong Chhnang province, is due for completion in February. It will serve five villages.
The budget is $50,000, a sum that includes donations such as a ¥96,928 contribution from the 2013 Japan Times Readers’ Fund. The money covers not only construction, but also the repair, maintenance and operating costs.
In February this year, AMATAK opened its 18th school, in Pailin province, near Cambodia’s border with Thailand.
The group believes it is helping people overlooked by other aid efforts. Some charitable organizations tend to build schools only near infrastructure such as highways, which means many undeveloped areas are neglected, Goto says.
To reach such places, a four-wheel-drive vehicle is needed. And in the rainy season, even that is no use.
“Even in those areas, children want to go to school,” Goto said.
Classes are overcrowded, a sign that Cambodians are aware of the need for education in rebuilding the country, he said.
A mere six years of schooling can give children basic but sufficient literacy and numeracy. But demand for education and opportunity is often thwarted by poverty.
“Whenever a new school is built, the number of students wanting to attend increases,” he said. “We try to set up projects in response to requests from local communities, but we have to choose the areas with the greatest need.”
Poverty not only restricts the education opportunities available. It makes families to send their children away in the hopes that they will secure a more prosperous future elsewhere — often placing them in a trafficking network that leads to prostitution.
Victims of child prostitution can be as young as 10 or 12 years old, and many quickly contract HIV.
“Parents who can’t afford to feed their children often end up selling their eldest daughter for $300,” Goto said. “It doesn’t mean it’s their will; they just have no choice.”
Goto himself helped to save at least one girl from this fate. During his group’s early years in Cambodia he came to know of a girl who was about to be traded. She already had a price tag, he said, an amount of money that would have enabled her parents to feed the family for only a few weeks.
Goto sent sacks of rice to them, and they promised to keep the girl in school in return. As a result, the girl continued through junior college. She is now a science teacher at a junior high school.
Goto finds it hard to express his emotion at seeing the girl overcome poverty and hardship.
“When you see people like her, you realize what great joy you can find in helping people,” he said. “I’m so thankful that there are more and more people willing to help.”