Never too old to learn
9 November 2011
Thirty-year old mother of three, Susan Mai is perhaps the oldest student in Papua New Guinea's basic education system. She has just completed grade ten and is anxiously waiting to see if she will get an offer to continue grade 11 in 2011.Susan sat her grade 10 final examiniations at Minj High School, Western Highlands Province, in October 2010, ten years after dropping out of school.
Susan completed grade six in 1997 but her academic results prevented her from continuing on to grade seven. At 17 and out of school, Susan had no hope of going any further. "I come from a polygamous family. My father has five wives and 21 children to look after. My mother has six children and I am the eldest. There was no money for me to continue," Susan explains. She married her husband, Kolma Mai at age 18 and started a family right away. Susan spent the next ten years of her life devoted to the care and upbringing of their three children while her husband worked as a school teacher at the Raphael Kome Primary School in Minj.
All that changed in late 2007 when husband Kolma attended a UNICEF hosted workshop on Acceleraing Girls' Education (AGE) where a goup of women advocates for girls' education encouraged families to send their daughters to school and keep them in school. Kolma went back home that day determined to send his wife back to school.
Almost 39 per cent of school aged girls are out of school in Papua New Guinea. The reasons for dropping out are many and UNICEF, through its AGE and Child Friendly School (CFS) programmes are encouraging families and communities to send more girls to school.
Since UNICEF's AGE programme was initiated in three highlands provinces in 2003 - Eastern Highlands, Simbu and Western Highlands an increasing number of girls who dropped out of the education system are returning to school.
Kolma's determination for his wife to complete her education grew stronger each day until in early 2008, a newly established Christian Integrated School run by the Baptist Church in Minj accepted her to enrol in grade six.
"I was so embarrased because this school was for small children and I was 28 years old. I lied to people that I was looking after small children at this new school and had to go to school everyday. My husband always encouraged me to continue going to school," Susan explains shyly. Her perserverance finally paid off when she was accepted to sit the grade 8 examinations.She scored above average grades and got into grade 9 at the Minj High School.
Looking back at her progress, Susan says a lot of girls drop out of school for many reasons like lack of school fees, security issues, lack of proper school based water and sanitation facilities, long distances between school and home and early marriages."I didn't take my education seriously before and I didn't realise how important education was until I was out of school. Education is life. Educated women are independent and they are respected by men," Susan stresses.
She explans that many girls don't do well at school because they miss out on a lot of classes. "Sometimes we have to stay home to take care of younger children or go to the garden. Lack of proper toilets is a big problem for older girls and many don't go to school because of that."
Often these girls don't get the support they need from schools to help them and they just accept their fate. But Susan says no one is too old to learn and any one can go back to school if they are determined.
Susan's routine for the past two years has been to wake up at four o'clock each day to prepare herself and her young son for school. "I travel two kilometers to drop off my son at his school before I get to my own school. After school, I pick up my son and we go home together," Susan smiles as she explains.
At home, there is always the housework to catch up on and meals to be cooked for the family but her husband always makes sure Susan has time to do her homework and studies.
Susan is grateful for the opportunity to go back to schools and says UNICEF's AGE programme gives girls like her a second chance at education.
"I am very happy with my husband also for his understanding and the support he gives me to continue my education. I want to go to university and get a good paying job to look after my husband and our children."