Overcoming barriers to education in remote mountainous regions

By Ruth Ansah Ayisi

The majestic mountain range in Chuquisaca in southeast Bolivia, with its rugged peaks and panoramic views, is awe-inspiring but walking up and down the paths can be treacherous particularly during torrential rains as Arminda Miranda, a mother of four children, knows all too well.

Arminda recalls how, when she was just 9 years old, she slipped on her way to school, dislocating her leg. Unable to walk, her cousin had to carry Arminda on her back down the mountain path to the health unit. After six months in hospital, Arminda never returned to school. “My father had been happy with me at school as I had been the best student,” says Arminda. “It had been my dream to have an education.”

Today, Arminda’s health is ailing but she manages to farm a small plot of soya beans, tomatoes and green vegetables to support her family. She lives in Puca Huasi, Monteagudo, a remote municipality in the Chaco region of Chuquisaca. Her dream is for her four children to have more opportunities than she had. Yet, it is a struggle; already two of her children have dropped out of school. Her 18-year-old son failed his exams for three consecutive years and he is now helping his uncle with pig breeding. Her 15-year-old daughter, Joseline, had to stop her schooling when Arminda fell sick. Joseline is now working for her aunt doing domestic chores to earn money so she can return to school next year.

Although school is compulsory and free in Bolivia, in 2010 primary school enrolment was only at 86 per cent. The figures are even lower for pre-school and secondary school at 45.4 per cent and 67.4 per cent respectively. Many children do not attend school due to poverty-- 43.4 per cent of the population are classified as poor and 21.6 per cent are extremely poor. “The poorest families are more likely to keep their children at home to work,” explains Anyoli Sanabria, UNICEF Chief of Education in Bolivia. “In addition, culture beliefs, particularly pertaining to girls, and the remoteness of villages as well as the harsh climate and environment hinder access to education.”

Even when children manage to attend school in rural areas, they often lack a quality education. In rural areas, on-time completion rates are 77 per cent for primary school and only 56 per cent for secondary schools. “Many schools in remote rural areas lack basic infrastructure; they are built with local materials which do not withstand heavy rains and they often lack water and sanitation facilities,” says Sanabria. “Schools also need to be more child-friendly; they need to have well-trained teachers, in particular, and they must be more inclusive of all indigenous groups and children with disabilities.”

Education has become a top priority for the government and communities are being encouraged to become more involved in the schooling of their children. Marta Miranda, who is president of the parents’ council at the local primary school in Puca Huasi, was elected to the post three years ago by her community. “At first I thought the job was too big for me,” says the mother of four, who was also unable to complete her own education. Marta Miranda, who is no relation to Arminda Miranda, says that some parents still need to be reminded that they mustallow their children to learn instead of making them work. “I visit their homes to tell them that we can take legal action if they don’t send their children to school.”

However, Marta does not need to persuade Arminda’s other daughter, Karen, 13, to attend school. Karen is determined that neither mountain paths nor work will keep her from school. She is giving the interview during a break from her work, picking tangerines. “It is seasonal job that I do for a few days during the holidays to earn a little extra money for my family,” explains Karen. She admits that she does not like picking the tangerines as the hours are long. However Karen brightens up again when she talks about school. She is excelling in science and languages. “I got 100 per cent for my Quechua and Spanish exams,” she says smiling. Her other passion is football. “My team won the girls football municipality championship. I train three hours a day whenever I can.”

Karen is also happy with the improvements at her school. Like the local pre-school and primary school in her area, her secondary school has solid infrastructure, piped water, separate toilets for boys and girls and an active parents’ council. Moreover, like other pupils in her area Karen does not have to walk to school. Eight years ago municipalities started to introduce a free school bus service, an intervention which has had strong community involvement and was initially financed by UNICEF, but now the buses are fully financed by the municipalities.

The buses have made a dramatic difference in Puca Huasi. “Before, the children were risking their lives to go to school, walking up and down the mountain paths and through the rivers, especially during the torrential rains,” says Ricardo Zarate, the Mayor of Monteagudo. The bus service has already contributed to a 12 per cent increase in access to education nationwide.

However, the Mayor points out some children still have a long walk to the bus stop as communities are sparsely dispersed over the mountains.

Karen is fortunate to live only five minutes’ walk from the bus stop. Yet the few times that the bus has failed to arrive, Karen is reminded about how tough it was for her mother just to get to classes. “I always try to make the effort to get to school but last year, I missed school twice because the bus did not arrive,” says Karen. “Other times I decided to walk, but it takes an hour and I’ve slipped a few times when crossing the river.”