For every child in Bangsamoro, an education

Over 45,000 children in the Bangsamoro region don't have access to a school

UNICEF Philippines
A girl wearing a school uniform looks at the camera
UNICEF Philippines/2019/Jeoffrey Maitem
28 October 2019

SOUTH UPI, Maguindanao, Philippines—Lizabel starts her day in pre-dawn hours. With a homemade lamp in hand, she makes her way through the darkness to a spring 500 meters away to take a bath. Her village, to this day, does not have electricity.

The 11-year-old meets up with her cousins and neighbors by the spring to wash up and get ready for another grueling day. The girls would then drop by their grandmother’s to help prepare breakfast and the meal they would bring to school.

On a typical day, breakfast is either boiled cassava or banana which they eat on their way to school. Lunch is ground corn, a cheap alternative to white rice that their families cannot afford. On better days, the children get a small dried fish each on top of the vegetables and ground corn.

UNICEF Philippines/2019

A long walk from home

By 5 AM, Lizabel and her friends begin the three-hour trek to the village center, arriving just in time for school, sometimes even late. Braving the semi-dark hours through cornfields and rivers has been Lizabel’s routine for going to school for the past six years. The children flock together during the walk to avoid any danger on the way.

Lizabel belongs to the indigenous Teduray, a tribe of upland farmers, in South Upi, Maguindanao, in Southern Philippines. Her family lives in the outskirts of the village, three hours from the town center. In the absence of public transportation, walking is the only way for Lizabel and her friends in the area to get to school.

“It is difficult. I arrive at school already tired from walking and hungry too. I sometimes sleep in class. I cannot help it,” Lizabel admits.

Despite the early start, she often arrives late for class.

“We teachers know Lizabel as the girl with a beautiful handwriting,” says Jocelyn Palao, a teacher from the same tribe. “She has potential, but she doesn’t participate during class activities and sometimes struggles to focus on lessons. But I can’t blame her because she walks a long way from home,” she adds.

A group of children walk to school carrying backpacks
UNICEF Philippines/2019/Jeoffrey Maitem
Lizabel and her friends leave the house wearing civilian clothes and slippers. They stuff their school uniforms inside their bags to avoid getting them dirty while traversing cornfields and rivers on their way to school. They only change to their school uniforms when they are inside the school premises.

Lizabel’s story represents the plight of children whose access to school is very limited or difficult. There are at least 213 barangays in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) where children do not have access to any learning facility. This problem is affecting over 45,000 primary school aged children.

Her hometown South Upi is located in BARMM, the most disadvantaged region in the Philippines in terms of socio-economic indicators. School enrolment and completion rates are much lower in BARMM compared to the national average in the Philippines.

About 48.5 percent of indigenous children in BARMM attend elementary school but only 11.2 percent complete basic education.

A combination of armed conflict, exclusion and marginalization, and many families valuing immediate livelihood needs over the education of their children, have contributed in lagging education.

Similar issues are faced by Lizabel’s 13-year-old cousin Jinalyn studying in seventh grade. Jinalyn’s teacher in South Upi National High School, Mr. Hermane Eslabon Jr., explained that 40% of students live far away from the school. In addition to acute poverty and the exhausting daily walks to schools, the children are also expected to help parents in the fields in the harvesting seasons. They cannot cope with school work, perform poorly and most drop out from school. 

Children, one of them looking at the camera, attend class in a classroom
UNICEF Philippines/2019/Jeoffrey Maitem
Like her cousin Lizabel, Jinalyn, 13, braves the six-hour trek to and from school. But during harvest seasons, they do not attend school but instead help their families in the cornfields.

Sheer determination

In school, Lizabel looks up to Jocelyn, her patient and supportive teacher who encourages her. “I feel like a second parent, and that it is my duty to educate children of my tribe. I understand their hardship. Their parents are occupied in the fields all day to make a living. They are not able to help their children at home,” Jocelyn shares.

Rain or shine, Lizabel has shown her commitment to come to school every day. But the daily trek of six hours to and from school is wearing off her little body.

Yet, for many indigenous girls in the region, Lizabel’s situation is still better than the sad alternative. Staying in school can protect her from child marriage, child labor, domestic violence, and give her the hope to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty.

“I go to school because I want to learn. I want to be a teacher someday,” she says with the determination that could only come from someone who faces life-threatening conditions just to get to school every day.

Children carrying backpacks and wearing school uniforms walking across a grassy field and waving to the camera
UNICEF Philippines/2019/Jeoffrey Maitem
Indigenous children like Lizabel and her friends who are living in poverty-stricken and remote communities, deserve a quality basic education. When a child enjoys a fair opportunity to learn, they get a fair advantage to develop and thrive to their full potential.

Vision for the future

Lizabel will complete her primary education this school year. Hopefully, she will join her cousin Jinalyn in South Upi National High School. For tertiary education, they can opt for the nearest vocational school in the neighboring town of North Upi or more advanced colleges in Cotabato City. The question remains: Can their parents send them to school or will they drop out just as most children and youth in their community?

The Philippine Development Plan (2017-2022) targets economic growth for all Filipinos to become globally competitive. The progress goes beyond economic growth and peace and trust building are essential to ensure that every child, including those who are marginalized, disadvantaged, and living in poverty-stricken, remote or indigenous communities, get a quality basic education.

For every child, an education. 

This is the first in a series of CRC@30 Philippines stories gathered by Shirin Bhandari, Teresa Cerojano, Claro Cortes, Jeoffrey Maitem, Charena Escala, Arby Laraño and Iris Lapid, with fact checks, technical and editorial inputs by a UNICEF Philippines team.