'What travelling to Cambodia taught me about the immeasurable value of teachers.'

I’m embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until I travelled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, that I learnt about the history of what had happened there.

Genocide. Unimaginable brutality. A devastating attempt to re-start history at ‘Year Zero,’ and destroy religion, education, and the acquisition of wealth through a radical communist policy.

The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, were in power from 1975-1979, and were responsible for the deaths of over two million people. They had wanted to create a “master race” through social engineering, who would work on farms and become self-sufficient. This meant executing enemies of the state – anyone who was educated, or even appeared educated, by wearing glasses or speaking a foreign language. Being educated was terrifying to the regime. These were the people they anticipated would challenge the ideas of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately stage a revolution.

Now, 40 years later, Cambodia has had to rebuild itself from the ground up. And education is more important than ever.

Watch: What Mamamia learnt in Cambodia. Post continues after video.

I travelled to Cambodia as part of Mamamia’s partnership with Room to Read – a non-profit organisation that aims to transform the lives of children through literacy and gender equality in education.

Mamamia currently funds 100 girls in school every day, with a view to increasing that to 1000 girls. Travelling to Cambodia was an opportunity to see the impact of what we’ve been able to do as an organisation to support girls’ education.

Immediately, it became clear that the girls we were meeting are fighting for their rights every single minute of every single day. Having an Indian heritage, I always thought that I was aware of and understood the harsh realities of poverty in developing nations. However, it wasn’t until I visited a primary and high school in Kampong Cham that I realised how poverty and lack of opportunities spreads into every single aspect of these children’s lives.

I also saw, in an entirely new light, the immeasurable value of educators.

I watched as the teachers in these classrooms – with stark differences from the classrooms I was educated in – taught these girls not only how to read and write, but how to think. How to argue. How to live a good life.

Image supplied.

One day, a Year 10 class had a debate around the topic 'Success comes from the individual'. The girls were so passionate, and although the debate was in their native language of Khmer, I could hear and sense the strength of their arguments. I knew straight away that I would definitely not be able to get up and argue a topic like that at my age now, let alone doing it at 16.

Another day, I sat in on a primary school class where we learnt to write Khmer. The topic was how to incorporate a vowel into a word. I couldn't keep up with the other kids, and the little boy who sat near me showed me that he had already done his homework for the next class.

Then there were the life skills classes. These girls learn everything from how to brush their teeth to how to speak your mind.

I spoke to a few of the Room to Read guides, and they told me they wished they had life skills when they were in school because when it came to things like feminine hygiene, they had no idea when they were growing up. When they got their period they were terrified because they didn't know what was happening to them.

Image supplied.

What was particularly heartening was that when we asked students what they wanted to be when they grew up, they stated very 'well known' professions such as doctors, engineers, professors - and teachers. So many of them wanted to be teachers. It's one of the most respected jobs in Cambodia, because they've watched how it changes lives.

When a teacher asks a question in a classroom in Cambodia, every student puts their hand up.

Because education is something you have to fight for.

In the rural areas of Cambodia, a women’s education doesn’t hold any value to their families. A family is more likely to send the male members to school as they rely on the females to stay home to cook, clean, look after the household and marry early. The Girls' Education Program within Room to Read aims to overcome these barriers, ultimately allowing girls and women to advocate for the decisions that are best for their futures.

Image supplied.

It's teachers that make this freedom possible.

The people who sit patiently and help a child to read. The people who start classroom discussions, ask questions, and tell stories. The people who open children's minds by providing them with the skills to question, to argue, to understand, and to communicate.

Teachers in many places and in many different ways do this every single day.

And it - quite literally - has the power to change the world.

Mamamia currently funds 100 girls in school, every single day. You can read more about our partnership here. You can also donate to Room to Read here, or find out more at their website.

00:00 / ???