Education and poverty

Sometime during the Christmas holidays, 21-year-old Onak asked me if I needed someone to look after the little orchard I was starting at the foot of Mt. Malasimbo in Bataan.  I remembered him as a sprightly teenager who helped around in my brother’s garden.  Slightly deaf because of chronic ear infection, he had quit school after Grade 4. Now he has to leave his parents’ home, he shyly tells me, because he has just taken a wife.  I immediately understood his situation, hired him on the spot, and allowed him and his bride the use of a cogon hut I had built as a weekend sanctuary until they could set up their own house.

Fifteen-year-old Jenny, his wife, also stopped going to school after finishing Grade 4.  Because she is a minor, they cannot be legally married. But this is a minor detail to this very young couple. They may not even get married, but they will soon be starting a family, replicating the same cycle of poverty, insufficient education, early marriage and long child-bearing years, and low-paying irregular work — that their own parents before them had followed.

There is no real way out of this cycle without a decisive intervention in education.  Study after study has shown that the higher the level of education of the head of the family, the higher the family income.  A simple quantitative rise in the level of educational attainment of Filipino families could produce a dramatic effect on poverty rates, especially in the rural areas.  But more important than the effect on incomes is the profound transformation in worldview and life aspirations that a good education can trigger.

Many years ago, the late President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania visited the Philippines.  Mwalimu, as he was fondly called by his own people, spoke at a forum at the University of the Philippines.  I remember one particular question he was asked: What would you regard as the most crucial element in Tanzania’s development program?  His quick unequivocal answer surprised everyone:  The education of our young women.

I expected this architect of Tanzanian modernity, the intellectual father of agrarian socialism, to come up with an elaborate discourse on the political economy of African underdevelopment.  But he instead proceeded to demonstrate in practical terms why the education of young rural women was critical to African development. First of all, he said, there was no moral or political or economic basis for discriminating against girls and giving all the opportunities for education to males in the family.  Second, he noted that the education of women releases them from the traps of male supremacy, ignorance, poverty, and, more importantly, the burden of prolonged child-bearing years.  Thirdly, educated mothers are better carriers of progress; more than fathers, the Mwalimu argued, it is they who are able to impart to their children the value of change, of what it means to be a person with aspirations, and what education can do for a human being so she can overcome the limits imposed by inherited hierarchies.

These thoughts came rushing back to me the other night, when the youngest of our four children, Jika, called to ask for advice on how to process a decision she was about to make.  At 27, after working in a highly-competitive setting for 5 years, she quit her corporate job last year to serve in the Jesuit Volunteer Program.  I thought it would be a good experience for her. An accountant by training, she was assigned to teach Math to 43 girls, aged 13 to 19, plucked from the remotest villages of Puerto Princesa in Palawan.  This unique rural boarding school, based in the Catholic parish of Macarascas, runs a full-time non-formal program that prepares the students for examinations accredited by the Department of Education.

By the end of April, Jika will have completed one year of volunteer work, and we cannot wait to have her back with us.  But now she is calling to ask what we think of her plan to stay on as a volunteer teacher till at least the end of 2005.  She says it has taken a while before she could win the full trust of the girls, and now she thinks that having entered their lives, she does not feel right about turning her back on them just because her term as JVP volunteer has ended. There’s still more she can do to prepare them while she is there, she says with conviction.  I was afraid this would happen.  As a parent, my instinctive response was to tell her there were other ways of helping the school and the girls that would not necessarily require her to put her own life on hold.

“But, Dad, my life is not on hold,” she gently told me.  “It is going on here perfectly.  It is the first time I have felt that I am doing something that has meaning not only for me but also for other people like these girls who have not had the same chances in life.”  I reminded her of her plan to get an MBA, but I got the sense that a graduate degree in business not only seemed remote to her now but also irrelevant.  She spoke to her mother about setting up a foundation for the education of rural girls.  She believes she can do that even as she continues to teach the girls the beauty of Math and the wondrous world that awaits them as educated women.  My heart tells me she has chosen the right path.

When we visited her in August last year, the founder of the school, Fr. Broderick Pabillo, took me aside to express his appreciation for allowing our daughter to volunteer at the school. “It is important for the girls,” he said, “not only to learn Math or English, but also to dream.  Our JVP volunteers, Jika and Jet (who teaches English), are showing them alternative images of what they can be.”

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