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East Asia & Pacific

Barriers  |  Interventions  |  Reporter’s Notebook

“My favourite part in football is scoring goals and everyone cheering for me. I’m very happy when my team wins, but we lost today and I still feel happy because I had fun playing.”

Naw Pa Eh, 12, refugee
from Myanmar living in Thailand refugee camp

‘25 BY 2005’ COUNTRIES
Papua New Guinea

Statistics from East Asia and the Pacific belie the true challenge of ensuring that all children enrol in and complete primary school. Despite a projected regional net attendance ratio of 96.2 in 2005, there are large disparities among and within countries. For the most part, gender parity in primary education by 2005 appears to be on track by sheer numbers, but the spirit of the goal – empowerment of girls and women – is far from realization.

Universal education was severely undermined by the region’s financial crisis of the 1990s. Net primary enrolment rates in Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam were especially devastated by the economic downswing. For example, Viet Nam had an average annual rate of increase in its net enrolment/attendance ratio between 1980 and 2001 of just 0.17 per cent, and the Philippines had an average annual rate of increase of only 0.07 per cent during that same period.

In 2002, the nascent independent country of Timor-Leste had less than two thirds of its primary school-age children attending classes. Overall, the region contributed 9 per cent to the global out-of-school population in 2001.

Despite these setbacks, the region is on track to meet the goal of universal primary education by 2015. Significant improvement in the annual average rate of increase in primary school attendance is required of Cambodia (2.5 per cent), Lao PDR (1.2 per cent), Myanmar (1.3 per cent) and Papua New Guinea (1.9 per cent), but universal education is certainly reachable. However, decreasing government outlay for education in Myanmar jeopardizes the country’s chances of success.

The region has accomplished a great deal: in 2001, it recorded equal numbers of boys and girls in primary school, and 17 countries are set to meet the 2005 goal of gender parity. Lao PDR, Niue, Palau and Papua New Guinea are the only countries and territories at risk of having fewer girls than boys in school when the goal comes due. However, gender parity is not translating into equal treatment within schools or equality within society. Boys often report being bullied and intimidated by teachers. And girls often receive less attention and time from teachers. At the same time, girls report being harassed by male students at school or during the journey to and from school.

The successes in getting children into school have been undermined by failure to have students complete their education. Poor quality factors into high grade repetition and drop-out rates. In Papua New Guinea, for instance, the overall gross enrolment rate for primary school is about 76 per cent, yet the statistic may be misleading because many children are overage. Cambodia had a primary school completion rate in 2001 of just 70 per cent. Lao PDR and the Philippines had completion rates below 70 per cent and Papua New Guinea’s rate was slightly above 50 per cent.

The lack of trained teachers, learning spaces and supplies contributes to poor quality education. Unprepared and unqualified teachers are cited as problems in most of the region’s countries – less than 80 per cent of teachers in Myanmar and Lao PDR are trained, and fewer than 60 per cent in Timor-Leste. A 2004 Philippine Government report indicated that the country has a shortage of 51,947 classrooms, 34.7 million textbooks and 38,535 teachers. It predicts the situation will get worse in the coming years, as student populations are expected to rise by 2.8 per cent annually.

Despite overall progress towards meeting gender parity in primary school, the numbers within the numbers point to a much-needed push to make the playing field level for all children. Little comfort should be taken from national and regional averages when so many girls have been left out. The disparities that are masked by statistics must be reckoned with if boys and girls, men and women are to reap the rewards of literacy and numeracy. If the full letter of the 2005 Millennium Development Goal of gender parity in both primary and secondary education is to be met, education must move to the top of the region’s list of priorities. There are 60 million children in the region who are not enrolled in secondary school. Only Indonesia, Myanmar and Viet Nam are on track to achieve gender parity in secondary education.


Poverty and its concomitant byproducts, such as child labour and inadequate infrastructure, are overarching factors that hinder school enrolment and attendance. Within the region, there are countries that have large percentages of their populations living on less than $2 per person, per day. School fees and hidden costs are huge obstacles that prevent poor children from going to school.

Emergencies and armed conflict also take their toll on the region’s quest to fulfil the education Millennium Development Goals. Ongoing or episodic violence simmers in eastern Indonesia, southern Philippines, southern Thailand and Myanmar. Tribal fights in parts of Papua New Guinea have shut schools periodically and are often cited by girls as the reason they have dropped out. The December 2004 tsunami was particularly devastating to Indonesia, killing well over 100,000 people. Natural and humanmade disasters drain countries of resources that would otherwise go to social services, including education.

Based on the yawning educational disparities among and within nations, it can be surmised that in addition to poverty, armed conflict and emergencies, other factors leave a child vulnerable to non-enrolment – being an ethnic minority, living in a remote area, or being a migrant or internally displaced person. Within these groups, girls are most at risk of being denied their right to complete basic, quality education. Whatever the basis of discrimination, girls face a double disadvantage.

Schools are not welcoming to ethnic minorities when the language of instruction is not their mother tongue. Many times children first hear their countries’ official languages when they enter school. This problem could be alleviated through bilingual education, yet most schools fail to accommodate minority children’s vernacular. In addition to hindering learning, failure to use the child’s household language alienates parents, who feel no sense of ownership of the village school.

Distances between villages and schools keep children from school. Parents are especially unwilling to have girls travel far from home because they fear for their daughters’ safety. And for children living in remote areas, long journeys are usually the only avenues to obtain an education. In Papua New Guinea, for instance, 87 per cent of the population lives in remote areas with few roads and no railways. In coastal areas, boats are the predominant means of transportation.

The rural/urban divide is especially evident in secondary education enrolment and attendance. There are fewer secondary schools in rural areas, and students must either travel long distances or leave home altogether to attend. Private schools are picking up the slack in some countries, but they are more accessible to the affluent, leaving large chunks of the population wanting. In Papua New Guinea, school enrolment, attendance and quality are low in the most remote areas because teachers are reluctant to move there. Overcrowded classes and double and triple shifts make teaching burdensome. Teacher absenteeism is particularly problematic in these areas.

Migrant children throughout the region are more likely to be in the child labour force than in school. In Thailand, for instance, of the 93,000 registered migrant children under the age of 15, only 14 per cent were enrolled in school. Some 80,000 boys and girls who had migrated to Thailand were missing their education, despite national laws that specify a right to schooling and prohibit employment for migrant children. In Viet Nam, education is more expensive for migrant children, who are required to apply to semi-private or private schools or pay higher fees to attend government schools.

Internally displaced children face similar obstacles to educational access. With their lives disrupted by violence or catastrophes, children are often deprived of their most-needed resource – the normalcy and routine provided by schooling. The good news is that the internally displaced population has been almost halved between 2003 and 2004 in this region. However, that is little comfort for the 929,000 internally displaced persons in Indonesia, the 529,000 in Myanmar, and the nearly 19,000 in Thailand who struggle to repair their lives and get their children back into school.

Education for the disabled in this region reflects a common theme throughout the developing world – there are insufficient accommodations for children with special needs. The World Bank estimates that fewer than 5 per cent of children with disabilities complete primary education. It concludes that having a disability may be the single most common reason for educational exclusion. Schools in the region have not readily opened their doors to children with disabilities, citing lack of resources and teachers’ fears that disabled children will be disruptive and will hinder others’ ability to learn.

Despite hidden crises for some groups, the barriers to gender parity and universal education are not insurmountable. East Asia and the Pacific launched the UN Girls’ Education Initiative group in 2002. The region’s early commitment to gender parity in education stands it in good stead for fulfilling the Education For All promises.


The East Asia and the Pacific region has been fertile ground for educational partnerships. Many UN agencies have joined non-governmental and civil society organizations in making gender parity and universal education the goal.

One innovative approach that breaks down stereotypes is the Kabataan News Network in the Philippines. The weekly television show is planned, directed, recorded and hosted by children – and over 80 per cent of the participants are girls. Focusing on entertainment and news rather than ‘educational TV’, the show, which is broadcast nationally, challenges traditional gender roles, puts girls in positions of leadership and gives young people a voice and a chance to participate.

Community participation is the glue that keeps children coming to classes in Kalayaan Primary School in the Philippines. The gold standard for ‘child-friendly’, the school is also a model for strong family involvement. To ensure a dynamic parent teacher association, the faculty works closely within the neighbourhood, ensuring that mothers and fathers have the necessary skills to meaningfully contribute to their children’s education. One component enrols illiterate parents into literacy classes. In addition, teachers keep parents abreast of the academic and social progress of the students. The children are also encouraged to be active in the school and community through Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, drama, dance, mathematics and science clubs, and civic activities. Similar schools have sprouted up throughout the country.

In Papua New Guinea, community participation is also the norm. Villagers are making certain that children will not be denied an education for lack of money – at least not at the Gaglmambuno Primary School in Kundiawa. In these remote parts, local communities have initiated the ‘school fees ake pile’. Ake pile roughly translates to ‘holding children in your hands and raising them upward towards their dreams’. On a specified day, church elders, parents, teachers and other leaders gather festively to donate money for tuition. In an area where most families survive through subsistence farming, local residents have determined that no child will be kept from school because of poverty.

While the efforts of the people of Kundiawa are inspiring, greater outside resources are needed to intensify Papua New Guinea’s push for gender parity and universal education. UNICEF has partnered with the strong network of churches that plays a critical role in providing education to the country’s children. In 2000, there were a total of 3,215 primary schools – 1,551 run by the government and 1,664 operated by various religious denominations, including Anglican, Catholic, Evangelical Alliance, Lutheran, Seventh-Day Adventists and the United Church of Papua New Guinea. Many denominations now focus on girls’ and women’s leadership, which will help transform gender parity into equality.

Strong partnerships are part of China’s efforts to return to fuller school access and enrolment for children, especially girls. UNICEF and China Women’s News, for instance, came together around girls’ education. Reporters used a positive news hook through regular columns on rural girls who finished their education and headed to the cities to pursue their careers. Other features spotlighted parents who made sacrifices to keep their daughters in school. Rather than focus on the negative, the articles give hope and inspiration to families.

The East Asia and the Pacific region could be a model. Yet, for the regional statistics to truly reflect the overall landscape of gender parity and universal primary education, pockets of failed school enrolment and attendance cry out for additional efforts and resources.

Reporter’s Notebook

Port Moresby to the Highlands, Papua New Guinea – There is no road connecting the two areas, so we take Air Niugini to Mount Hagen in the Western Highlands. Transportation of people and supplies between most regions of the country is done by air or in coastal areas by ship, which makes operation costs for development programmes extremely expensive. Once there, we visit Aviamp Primary School, where older girls tower over young students. Girls in Papua New Guinea often drop out and come back later to catch up.

Kundiawa, Chimbu Province, Papua New Guinea – We drive to our next stop across rugged terrain riddled with potholes. Getting around is not easy – even where there is a road system, like in the Western Highlands. Unlike the lush Western Highlands, Chimbu is barren and is the least developed province. For the most part, educated people leave, making it difficult to find teachers and doctors. I get a glimpse of the isolation of some areas when we head to Gaglmamabuno Primary School, about 32 kilometres from Kundiawa and 5 kilometres off the main road.

I wondered in the morning why our local colleagues, who are usually telling jokes and stories nonstop, are quiet except for the occasional question about the day’s road conditions. When we turn off the main road, begin winding up steep hills and over old wooden bridges with broken beams and missing tie plates, I understand their unease. It has rained the night before, as it does much of the year, and the road has turned into a soup of mud and water. Nobody speaks as the truck struggles through the sludge, fishtailing as it inches its way onward. With a huge drop on one side, not surprisingly it takes over an hour to cover the 5 kilometers. Once we get over the top of the hill, lightheartedness and chattiness return. Their favorite stories are about passengers, mostly staff from abroad, whose contorted faces speak volumes while they hold their breath going up the mountain.

There is no traffic on this road and I later find out that only one person in a village close to Gaglmamabuno has a jeep. I keep thinking about the people who must depend on this road as their only connection to a health clinic or market where they can earn some cash.