By Matt Davies (Mexico)
I have recently returned from Guatemala where I spent two weeks accompanying ATD Fourth World‘s team as they began thinking about their priorities for the coming year. It was also a period of visiting the neighbourhoods, in Guatemala City and Escuintla, a city near the Pacific coast, where the team’s presence over the years has enabled them to build up long-term relationships with people living in poverty. This long-term partnership has led to the creation of numerous projects that have real buy-in from the community, ranging from an economic-solidarity project to a book-lending club.
That does not mean that people’s lives are now free from the hardship and constant stress and worry that extreme poverty entails. Being the beginning of the school year now, enrolling children in school was the major concern for the families in the neighbourhoods we visited. In 2008, the then government issued a decree to ensure education be without cost for all children in Guatemala. It led to a huge boost in enrollment at that time due to schools no longer asking for contributions for the light snack provided, cleaning or maintenance of the school. All that is now history. On meeting families who live in an informal settlement in Escuintla, they spoke of local schools charging US$5 per child or US$12 per family. One mother told us, “The head teacher told us, ‘If you want to complain, you can go to the local education ministry office, I’m authorised to make these payments.” I asked her if they had known there would be payments to be made. “The head teacher told us in December,” she replied, “She said we shouldn’t spend too much on fireworks or food at Christmas because we’ll have to pay to enroll the children.”
Family after family told us that they had not been able to enroll all their children at school because of the cost. In one particular family, the mother was particularly down-hearted. “I’ve had to choose which of my children to enroll as I can’t pay for all of them. So the two eldest are going to school, the youngest failed her exams last year and would have had to repeat the year. So she’ll have to stay at home with me instead, I can’t afford to send her.”
What criteria do you use to choose between which of your children should have their right to education fulfilled? Will the ongoing debate on the Millennium Development Goals on education reflect the choice that millions of parents, not just in Guatemala, are confronted with? Will the Committee on the Rights of the Child be as harsh on States not fulfilling their obligation to provide free primary education in the same way they rightly condemned the Vatican for their failure to protect children? What we can do is raise our voices, and empower parents and children living in poverty to do likewise, to make society aware of the outrage of having to choose between who in the family may enjoy their right to be educated and who may not.