Sri Lanka: From stage to school
Tea estates in the hill country of south-western Sri Lanka are geographically and socially isolating environments. Those who live on them have little contact with people “on the outside”, leaving them unaware of their rights and without access to services, resources and information.
This disenfranchisement is often passed from generation to generation. Many parents have never attended school and see little value in their children getting an education, particularly girls. Instead, they help the family by looking after younger siblings, doing household chores, working with their parents on the plantations or earning money by working in shops or as domestic servants from as young as 10 years. To compound the situation, many children don’t have the birth certificates they need to be able to attend government schools or the money to travel to Tamil schools located up to 15km away.
Oxfam Australia is working with local partner Rural United Foundation of Deniyaya (RUFD) to redress the situation. RUFD set up an “alternative” school for 30–45 children on tea estates in the Deniyaya area to provide basic literacy, numeracy and language classes in Tamil and Sinhalese. They also trained children at the alternative school in music, dance and drama to raise community awareness about children’s rights to education and equal treatment.
In December 2006, the children held their first public performance before a crowd containing local parents, the divisional education secretary and other prominent community members. The performance was designed to encourage parents to support their children’s education, advocate on the barriers to education and give children a forum to express themselves.
In the discussions that followed, one mother Kamala Kandiah said, “I feel very bad that I have not sent my children to school before and have kept them working in the plantations. I have decided that from tomorrow I will send them to school, I promise you.”
The performance achieved its aim. Afterwards the divisional education secretary announced that he had arranged for the children to be admitted to two schools in Deniyaya from January 2007.
“After meeting with RUFD, I highly appreciated their efforts and was committed to finding government schools for the children to attend,” he said. “I have talked to the principals who have allocated places for all the children.”
The 32 students began school in January and are very positive about the experience. “We are with lots of different students,” one of the older boys Shan Praba said. “There is a playground and we are learning many different subjects we did not have in the other school.”
RUFD is continuing to monitor the children and support them through any challenges they face at their new schools.