Thursday, October 17, 2013

Education and Poverty

Today, October 17, has been declared by United Nations in 1992 as the “World Day for Overcoming Poverty.”  What comes to mind are two scenes, that young Pakistani teen who risked her life so that girls like her in Pakistan (and other poor places in the world) would have access to education. The other is the scene of a thousand plus CCT (Conditional Cash Transfer) beneficiaries waiting for their subsidy in a gymnasium in Cebu, and when they felt strong earthquake tremors, they panicked and went into stampede killing one four year old girl and injuring so many.  

The earthquake scene reminds me of earthquake drills conducted in some schools and high rise business establishments. These drills are meant to instruct and prepare people what to do when a real earthquake strikes the area. Unfortunately, the poor, having limited schooling, do not have the same opportunities to learn and prepare for such eventualities.  And to think that given the kind of places where they live, they are the most vulnerable all sorts of disasters like fire, flooding and earthquakes. Providing better housing and safety-related services would best address this concern. However, disaster preparedness education is still necessary.  CCT should include a disaster education program as part of their regular meetings with families involved. 
Reflecting on that Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai, it is sobering to realize that in many god-forsaken places like Pakistan, Afghanistan etc (including Talipao, Isulan, Bongao), youngsters look up to EDUCATION as their ultimate means for deliverance.  They see education as the source of social and cultural capital to open opportunities for a better life. Despite of social theories that point to education as an apparatus that  reproduces unequal social structures, at real experience level, people can find actual cases of their fellows whose lot has been improved due to the level of formal education they received.  I can point to the experience of my own mother, Irene Nisperos.

She was raised  in a very poor family in Barrio Carriedo, Tayug, Pangasinan. Her father, Hilario, was a hardworking farmer. Although multi-talented and street smart, he could barely write his name since he never had a day in school.   As a young girl, my mother would join her stepmother at the river to do laundry job for some rich Chinese families in our hometown. During school days, my mother would walk for a total of six kilometers in order to go to a school at the Poblacion. She managed to finish high school, and always  at the top of her class. Defying her stepmother’s wish to marry the son of one of her clients, my mother  packed her clothes and travelled alone to Manila. I can imagine her, barely 16 (like that brave Pakistani girl), going from one university to another in Sampaloc, seeking for a school that will award her with a  full scholarship based on her high school academic record. She finally found one at the National University.  To support herself with her daily needs, she had to clean toilets, tutor her classmates and borrow money from relatives. She told me that she subsisted mostly on galunggong which her father would send through Pantranco. Since she could not afford to buy her own textbook, she would stay in the library until late at night. She graduated with a degree in Accountancy, Cum Laude. She was actually the first college graduate in her barrio.  She eventually found a good job in a pharmaceutical company and she would send half of her salary to her family in Carriedo.  She eventually married my father, Mario Estigoy, an engineer, whom she met in a boarding house in Main Street, Sampaloc.

Through sheer hard work, they managed to send all their eight children to college. I thought, if she did not work hard and dared to go beyond her comfort zone, we will not be where we are now. Of course hers is an isolated case, worthy to be featured in MKK (Maalaala Mo Kaya). The majority of her childhood friends remained in the barrio and stuck in that particular stratum relegated to them by the existing social order. Yes, it might be inspiring to tell young people to imitate my mother so they could break free from poverty, but not all are as smart and as brave as she was. The more relevant and compelling message is for us as citizens and change agents to ensure that we make quality education more accessible to all, not just to the exceptionally bright pupils. We should also ensure that such education is not reduced to a useless piece of paper, but a real symbolic capital that can be exchanged for better social mobility, empowerment and real freedom.