January 19, 2021

Formal Education Transforms Human Life in Papua New Guinea

Marking International Education Day, 24 January

In the past in Papua New Guinea (PNG) formal education was not recognised as vital as it is today. When formal education was first introduced in the 1960s and 1970s in PNG only the boys were allowed to go to school. Girls were to stay at home with their mothers.

Article 26 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed in 1948, states that it is everyone’s right to be educated, it must be at no financial cost and it is compulsory in the early years.  However, in PNG people were not clear about the rights of every child to be educated and to be given equal respect.  It is only when the giftedness of each person is valued equally and their dignity is respected, then they are able to contribute to the common good and feel included in society.

For example, when the first Sisters of Mercy came to PNG from Australia in 1956 to the highlands and in 1957 to the coast, they had to really stand their ground in order to take the girls as well as boys into the schools which they established.  Very slowly, people began to recognise the importance of formal education, and girls were educated equally.  Achieving this change was not without its challenge.

Due to the rugged geography of our country, 75% of the population live in the villages and most of the people are still not formally educated. Children cannot go to school due to the geography of the place and the inability of many families to afford funds to pay the school fees to send their children to attend school. In most villages, children have to walk hours climbing mountains and cross rivers to attend school.

Most of the remote schools miss out on the resources supplied by the Education Department. Many families struggle to afford food and shelter for the night, let alone being able to afford to send their children to school. For those of us who are formally educated and who have the privilege of a good profession, we feel more included when we can contribute to the economy and the wellbeing of our country of PNG. We come to realise that we are able to share our gifts with everyone.

In recent times COVID-19 has impacted formal education in many parts of the world. Many children and students have been badly affected and their studies have been disturbed as well as their mental health and self-esteem. In developing countries like PNG students have been emotionally and mentally affected. As a result, some of them have turned to drugs and other forms of crime, while others are in danger of forms of exploitation such as child labour, child trafficking and becoming street vendors.  In the towns in PNG (prior even to COVID-19) young children who do not attend school and who loiter around the markets become known as ‘taxi boys’, carrying the heavy produce on their backs for a small amount of money.

Therefore, formal education is a lifetime process. It has the power to transform the life of every person.  It empowers, and fosters the development of creative, informed and resilient global citizens. In PNG formal education is a gift which opens up a world of choices and possibilities.

Messages to: Theresia Tina rsm - MIA-MGA Emerging Leaders Fellow

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