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PERU: Going to School Still a Feat for Rural Girls

Milagros Salazar

WAWAS, Peru, Jul 15 2009 (IPS) - María Belén Sabio, a 30-year-old Awajun woman from Peru’s northeastern Amazonia province, was able to complete a teacher training programme despite having five children to raise. “Life here in the countryside is not easy, and I’ve had a hard time getting ahead,” she told IPS.

Schoolgirls in an Amazon community  Credit: Milagros Salazar/IPS

Schoolgirls in an Amazon community Credit: Milagros Salazar/IPS

But not all indigenous women can beat the odds stacked against them. Most only make it as far as primary school, the statistics show.

Education for native women is an unfinished story. While opportunities for schooling have expanded and official figures show that there’s more than 90 percent coverage in education, girls of all ages and young women from rural areas are the weakest link in the learning chain.

“My children are also studying, because that’s the only way they’ll have access to more opportunities for themselves and the community. But the government offers no help to ease the load for those of us who live far from the cities,” said Sabio, who lives in Wawas village in the district of Bagua.

A brutal crackdown on indigenous protests in Bagua in early June drew attention to the marginalisation and exclusion faced by native peoples in Peru’s Amazon jungle region.

According to the 1993 census, indigenous people made up one-third of the Peruvian population. But more recent estimates put the proportion at 45 percent, with most of the rest of the population of 28.7 million being of mixed-race (mestizo) heritage, around 15 percent of European descent, and a small minority of African descent.

The greatest problems faced in terms of enrolment in rural areas – which is where most of the country’s indigenous people live – are found in preschool, between the ages of three and five, and in secondary education, from age 12 to 17.

According to the 2002 National Household Survey, 56 percent of girls and 58 percent of boys in rural areas are not in preschool, which is free and compulsory in Peru. And in the 12 to 17-year-old range, 26 percent of teenage girls from rural areas drop out of school, while the dropout rate for boys stands at 18 percent.

Inequalities are highlighted when comparing rural and urban figures. In urban areas, 72 percent of youngsters complete the five years of secondary school, compared to only 36 percent of rural students, according to the latest figures released by the Ministry of Education.

Of the country’s 1.5 million children and adolescents between the ages of three and 17 who are neither enrolled nor attending school or following a study programme, almost a third (426,000) are rural girls, researcher Carmen Montero indicates in her study on Gender Inequalities in Rural Education (“Las desigualdades de género en la educación de zonas rurales”).

Multiple reasons for dropping out

“As girls grow older their mothers choose not to send them to school because they need them at home to help care for their younger siblings or with household chores,” Fidel Datsa, a teacher at a school in Wawas, told IPS.

Elena Burga, head of education at IBIS, a Danish non-governmental development organisation working to achieve equal access to education, told IPS that geographic, social, cultural and economic reasons combine to keep indigenous women out of school.

Poverty is particularly acute in rural areas in the Amazon and Andean regions, which is precisely where the indigenous population is concentrated, so that parents are often forced to put subsistence concerns above the decision to send their children to school.

Most communities have primary schools, but in order to attend secondary school girls usually have to travel long distances, which is a source of worry for parents.

“Many fear that if they send their daughters far from their villages, they might get lost or be attacked by strangers, and that they’d be putting them in harm’s way,” Burga said.

But according to Datsa, “women have little interest in studying” because they often marry at a young age and devote themselves to tending to their husbands and taking care of their children.

In the district of Bagua, 17.4 percent of women don’t know how to read and write, and this figure climbs to 18.9 percent for all Peruvian rural women between the ages of 25 and 29. Their illiteracy prevents them from helping their children in their efforts to learn to read and write, Montero notes in her study on gender and education.

Mothers fighting for inclusion

Another reason that contributes to the high dropout rate among indigenous women is their early sexual initiation. But according to women themselves, this situation is changing, especially in the less isolated communities.

“We want our girls to study. As mothers, we do everything we can to help them be better than us. But that doesn’t always happen with women who live in the most remote communities, where men have greater control,” said Julia Esamat, a 53-year-old woman from the village of Nazareth, a three-hour drive from the town of Bagua.

Esamat, who has a small plot where she grows cassava and plantain, was able to put her children through school with the money she earns from selling her produce. Now they are all studying in the town of Chiclayo, in the neighbouring district of Lambayeque.

“Here, all the women work, and little by little we’ve learned to make a place for ourselves,” Esamat told IPS. “Things are changing, even if we still have to beat ‘machista’ (sexist) attitudes.”

Patricia Ames, a researcher at the Institute of Peruvian Studies, a leading centre of sociological research in the country, told IPS that women in indigenous communities play a key role in passing down cultural practices, such as traditional cooking or pottery-making techniques. “Going to school can mean leaving behind learning experiences in their villages,” she said.

“Indigenous women are torn by a legitimate conflict, which must be taken into account by the educational system, because these traditional activities performed by women are viewed by their community as part of their process of coming of age,” Ames added.

The hurdles to access in schooling are compounded by the poor quality of education. In rural areas, eight percent of all students repeat a grade in primary school, compared to 4.6 percent in urban areas, according to the most recent official data, from 2007.

Peru has a law for the promotion of girls’ education with a gender perspective, and a National Education for All Plan, implemented to meet international commitments.

But there are still problems in putting these guidelines into practice.

Bilingual intercultural education is not addressed efficiently and educators lack adequate training to face the challenge of teaching students in these vulnerable areas. Slightly more than 10 percent of all schools in Peru are bilingual, teaching in both Spanish and indigenous languages.

Barely 10 percent of all bilingual schools have a teacher per grade, while 57 percent have only one teacher for every two or more grades, and 39 percent have a single teacher for the entire school.

According to Karem Escudero, an expert on indigenous issues, access to schools and quality education in rural areas will directly affect the possibility of women gaining a leadership role in the indigenous movement.

“Women who know how to read and write and are articulate are seen as potential leaders. Being a leader entails having certain social skills and abilities that are developed through both formal and informal education,” she told IPS.

Being able to enjoy a basic right like the right to education will allow indigenous women to be active citizens and defend other rights more effectively, to the benefit of their family and their community, the expert concluded.

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