Universal Fundamentals

By Husam Alsousi, CEIU

Today in 2017, it is common convention to think of education as a universal fundamental right. But one must always remember that in practice, common convention is subject to economic conditions and social norms. In a developed country such as Canada, it would be strange to imagine a child or youth being deprived of education but in the developing world, convention tells a different story.

In the middle of Central America, right underneath Mexico, is a small country of about 16 million inhabitants[1] that is famous for its ancient Mayan heritage sites, volcanoes and various export goods. But one must dig deeper than the Guatemala sticker you see on the local grocer’s bananas or a reference to the coffee sold by PSAC Social Justice Fund to gain a better understanding of the population.

The capital Guatemala City is known as the hub of Central America because it is the most populated with over three million residents. And Guatemala is particularly unique in that it has the largest indigenous population ratio, with roughly 40% being indigenous Mayan[2] as compared to 10% or less indigenous populations in the surrounding countries. And most of those indigenous Mayans live in rural areas.

Based on statistics collected from 2008 to 2012, Unicef cites that the adult literacy rate is about 76%.[3] And the literacy rate for youth, both male and female, nears 90%. Unicef cites that the primary school enrolment rate is 98% and the participation rate is capped close to the maximum. However, the percentage of those completing the last primary grade is 68%. Secondary school participation rate is about 46%.[3] The completion percentage is much lower and one can only imagine how low the post-secondary school attendance is, let alone the completion rate. And it is very clear that those living in rural communities are much less likely to complete secondary school and enrol in university.

So what happened? Do rural indigenous Guatemaltecos even want to attend university? Why are less than half the youth attending secondary school, let alone completing it? The answer is very disheartening. I travelled to and lived in rural Guatemalan villages amongst the indigenous population and got a taste for their lives and the obstacles to education.

Firstly, it is important to note that in line with the universal standard in today’s world, Guatemala acknowledges the right of its citizens to have education. Guatemala’s constitution dictates that every one of its inhabitants has the right to primero basico,[4] or six years of elementary school in Canadian standards. Therefore, the state must pay for those educational institutions to be built and staffed. They are the responsibility of the state, unlike secondary schools, where families have to pay for their children to attend. However, we have to think back to that 2% of the population who isn’t enrolled in elementary school. Why aren’t they enrolled and are they from a particular community?

There is a huge gap in the state providing schools, adequately. Although Guatemala spent 2.8% of its GDP on education,[5] many rural indigenous communities do not have adequate classrooms and class sizes number over 40 students per teacher![4] In actuality, a recent study revealed that the rate of unenrolled or drop-out primary school students has been on the rise from 5.5% to 19% over the last 12 years.4 That accounts for almost 250 000 kids between 7 and 12 not attending school. And almost all those students are indigenous children from low-income households in rural communities.

The reality is that one of three girls and one of four boys has to work to help support those low-income households.[4] And sometimes they have to drop out of school altogether for work. While on the social justice delegation, one of the youth we met asked me personally for money so that he could attend secondary school. He explained that he was one of eight children and his parents did not have enough money to pay for schooling for any of them. So after completing the government sponsored six grades of primary school, they have to find work. I asked what job a 13 year old could get. He told me that with that basic school education, he couldn’t even be hired to work at a restaurant or convenience store. Those jobs needed at least high school completion. So the only option left is to go into the forest to chop lumber and carry it back on his back. We frequently saw men and many children, some younger than 12, walking out of the forest with many pieces of lumber perched on their curved backs. This young man told me that it is very hard work and the sun is too hot. And at the age of 20, he still had hope to go back to finish junior high school, although he would be 8 years older than his classmates, and then on to high school and university. He aspired to be an engineer. But the sad reality is that he probably won’t go back to school.

A recent university graduate I met confirmed this harsh reality of the experience of many indigenous youth from rural communities. He is a plant biochemist from Antigua, living away from home in government subsidised housing for university students from rural communities. This was common for rural students since it would be too far to commute everyday for 2 or 3 hours to and from home to the university. But his parents could only afford public university because the higher quality private universities were far too expensive. He explained that the major driving factor that allowed his parents to afford his university studies was the fact that they were only four siblings, one of which chose a family life over going to university. So his parents could afford secondary school costs and subsequently university costs. But he was under a lot of pressure because the whole family has a lot riding on him. He would also be expected to support the family with his future employment income, as is customary.

And in speaking to a young worker of a rural indigenous background, who was a university graduate and had “made it” for all intents and purposes, life is still difficult. Wages aren’t competitive for those working in grassroots organisations. Although they were helping the people become self-sustainable and promote human and working rights, he dreamed of having enough money to travel. And I don’t mean travel to Europe or Australia. Just to travel to the neighbouring countries and maybe a few countries over. But money is limited though fair and work is rigorous though fair. So even for those rural indigenous youth who came from smaller families and had the fortune to attend secondary school, study in university, pass and land a decent job, life is still difficult. And for the rest of the youth, the vast majority, work became a full time job from a young teenaged time in either hard labour such as cutting wood or selling products in the market with the family or working in a restaurant if they completed high school. Reflecting on the sad reality of youth in developing Guatemala makes one realise the universal right to education is actually seen by many as a privilege; one we far too often take for granted.