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Papua New Guinea: Newsline

Villagers in Papua New Guinea pool resources to pay unaffordable school fees

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©UNICEF/Stark-Merklein
In Papua New Guinea's isolated highlands, where Tine Samson, 16, lives, many people survive as subsistence farmers and lack the cash for their children’s school fees.

Papua New Guinea is a richly diverse country and its rapidly developing society integrates old and new lifestyles and values. While in the cities, a number of educated people lead sophisticated middle-class lives, many rural people survive as subsistence farmers. They and other poor families, especially in the country’s isolated highlands, lack the cash to pay for their children’s school fees. As a result, school enrolment and retention rates are among the lowest in East Asia and the Pacific and the gender gap in primary school is the highest in the region. Recently, villagers in a remote area pooled resources to get more girls into school.

KUNDIAWA DISTRICT, CHIMBUTU PROVINCE, Papua New Guinea, 25 May 2005 – Today is a special day at Gaglmambuno Primary School, located in a remote area of Papua New Guinea’s highlands. Students and teachers are waiting outside the school building for the villagers to come celebrate the second anniversary of School Fees Akepile, a collective fund the communities set up to pay school fees for all their children.

Among those waiting are students Tine Samson and Maria Maine, both 16, dressed in traditional regalia with bird of paradise plumes in their elaborate headdresses swaying in the morning breeze.

Most girls in Papua New Guinea are forced to drop out before finishing primary school but Tine and Maria are in school and will soon be completing grade 8.

Cries of greeting echo back and forth from the mountains announcing delegations from nine surrounding communities coming to hand over their contributions. Each group, led by dancing men and women in traditional costumes and colourful body decorations, carries a long bamboo pole with the bank notes they collected stuck to it.

“Thanks to the School Fees Akepile [roughly translated, akepile means to assist], the number of students at Gaglmambuno has increased from 104 in 2004 to 240,” says John Kawage from the provincial education authorities. “Many of the beneficiaries are girls who, without the programme, would have to drop out of school because their families can’t afford school fees,” he adds.

School fees are a financial burden for many families, especially subsistence farmers who have little or no cash income. If parents have to make a choice, they are likely to send their sons rather than their daughters to school. Many families don’t see the value of educating girls who traditionally have a low status in this society and are kept at home for household chores. Often, families take daughters out of school to marry them off and cash in the bride price. Since most girls move in with their husband’s family when they marry, parents don’t reap the benefits of an educated daughter.

Tine and Maria are glad because their parents are allowing them and their sisters to study, although neither of their mothers went to school. “We make sure to put in our share of house and garden work,” the girls say, “to keep everybody happy.”

Overall school enrolment and retention rates are low in Papua New Guinea: for every ten 7-12 year olds, seven are enrolled and only four will complete grade 8. The numbers are especially grim for girls: for every ten 7-12 year old girls, six are enrolled but only three will complete grade 8.

At Gaglmambuno Primary School, the change came last year when church elders, community leaders, parents and teachers decided to establish the School Fees Akepile and the government, with UNICEF support, integrated the school in a pilot programme to accelerate girls’ education.

“The School Fees Akepile is the first of its kind in Papua New Guinea,” says Mr. Kawage. “It encourages all members of the community, whether they have a child in school or not, to contribute to the school fees of all the children in the village. And since the whole community pays, everybody makes sure that the children really are in school.” Based on an age-old Papua New Guinea custom of pooling resources and paying collectively for bride price and compensation costs (known as the wantok system), the fund benefits underprivileged children, orphans and children from poor and disabled parents.

The Gaglmambuno school grounds are quickly filling with people and crowds are gathering around the hillock that serves as stage from where the headmaster calls out by megaphone the amounts contributed by each village. One by one, the nine delegations step forward to ceremoniously hand over their money-laden poles. Tine and Maria are escorting guests of honour to their seats on stage. On the ground below, spectators cheer on dancers, drummers and theatre groups performing skits to illustrate the mutual benefits of community support to its members.

The headmaster and teachers count the bank notes and proudly announce the total amount of contributions: 4,410 Kina or 1,416 USD. The crowds break into chants of approval.

As the ceremony draws to a close, Tine and Maria reflect on how the School Fees Akepile benefits them. “Our parents sometimes complain about expensive school fees,” they say, “but with that programme, we have high hopes to continue our studies beyond grade 8.” Maria, whose father is a clergyman, wants to become a nun. “I really like religion,” she says and looks down shyly. Tine is enthusiastic about her prospects. “I love science and home economics,” she says with an easy smile, “and I want to study so that I can become a teacher myself.”

The way forward: community involvement, child-friendly schools and partnerships

According Dr. Isiye Ndombi, UNICEF representative in Port Moresby, community involvement similar to the School Fees Akepile, the government’s acceleration programme for girls’ education and child-friendly schools are the way forward – together with partnerships. “We work with a range of partners, from different government departments to universities, non-governmental organizations and churches, to get girls into school” he explains. “At the moment, our biggest partners are churches which run more than 60% of schools in the country [Gaglmambuno, for example, is run by the Catholic Church]. But we are also forging partnerships with the private sector. We have some companies on board and are encouraging more local businesses to ‘adopt’ a school and provide materials and other help needed.”

These initiatives have already led to increased participation of women in communities that traditionally provide limited opportunities for them. An important step, says Dr. Ndombi, since “the country’s deepening poverty can only be overcome if we educate the next generation and manage to unleash women’s untapped potential.”

 


 

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