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Free to Learn

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By Martin Nanawa, ChildFund Philippines
Posted on 5/19/2016

Jessa used to miss school to work in the cane fields to help support her family. Now she attends regularly since her parents were able to stabilize their income through ChildFund's economic strengthening initiatives.

The morning sunlight made fascinating shadows over the footpath, tall crops casting a lattice of shadows that danced to the breeze. Although thankful for the bit of shade, Jessa sometimes fancied the shadows as a web that ensnared her family and neighbors, trapping them in her community’s vast farmlands.

Jessa comes from an agricultural community in the southern Philippines. Her parents both farmed to feed her and her eight siblings, but though her parents are lucky to own the patch of land they farm, agricultural income is meager, and her seven elder siblings all at one time or another helped till, plant and harvest. Four have moved out to start their own families, leaving the younger children to take their turn helping their parents as they came of age.

Even though her family farmed, Jessa would sometimes go to school on an empty stomach. “On days like that, I’d try my best to tough it out,” she says, “though I’d find it very difficult.”

Tougher times often required Jessa to help her parents on the farm, forcing her to miss school.

“I’d wake at 5 in the morning to begin my 30-minute walk up the mountainside to our plot of land,” she remembers. “I’d bring my breakfast with me, if there was breakfast to be brought. Otherwise, I’d have to pick mangoes or forage for root crops to boil.” She needed the head start so she could reach the farm, and get some work done while the sun was still low in the sky, and not too hot. “I didn’t actually plant or harvest, but I took care of all the support work needed, like gathering the harvest or shuttling what my parents needed to them.”

 two girls walking outdoors blue skirts uniforms building

Jessa (left) walks home with a friend after school.

Hunger was far from the only challenge in those days. “The sun’s heat was unpleasant, but the most unpleasant thing for me was missing school,” Jessa says. She tried not to miss consecutive days, spacing her absences throughout the school week. She hoped to catch up on whatever she missed in the intervals between. “There was really no way to do it,” she admits, and her grades dipped in the 70s, just barely passing.

When Jessa was in seventh grade, ChildFund’s interventions against child labor reached her, through a long-term project called LEAP, focused on children involved in — or at risk of being involved in — the sugar cane industry. Through advocacy and livelihood interventions in vulnerable communities, the project sought to remove children from the sugarcane fields as well as prevent them from laboring there in the first place. On top of providing direct assistance to students, ChildFund directed advocacy efforts at local governments, schools and parents, promoting the value of education over any temporary or perceived gains from having children work.

Through schools, ChildFund also has organized catch-up classes for child laborers returning to their studies. ChildFund understands the connection between performance at school and the motivation to stay in school. Child laborers who miss much school and begin failing at their subjects tend to become demoralized and are more likely to drop out and work full time. Catch-up sessions hosted by peers help challenged learners improve, and they build leadership among student achievers who help their classmates.

Jessa was able to catch up with her schoolwork on her own, so the interventions that really helped her were the livelihood support and community-managed savings and credit system that ChildFund introduced in her community. Her parents participated in both. Their boosted income and improved financial resilience negated any need to ask Jessa or her siblings to miss school to help them. “Over weekends or vacation, I sometimes help my mother with her beadwork for the women’s accessories she makes,” Jessa says. At least that work is light, and she can do it at home.

Now Jessa’s 16 and just finished with 10th grade. “I’m happy and fortunate to have encountered an organization that reminded me of my freedoms, rights and responsibilities as a young person,” she says. “I’m not embarrassed to step forward anymore. On the contrary, I’m proud I’m an achiever now. My grades are all in the 90s!

“Though my parents wanted me to become a policewoman,” she adds, “I want to become a teacher when I grow up — I want to help children who can’t go to school because of poverty.”

Jessa still wakes at 5 a.m.; she’s used to it. But she has breakfast at home now, before starting down that same path — now to a different destination. School’s a much shorter walk than the farm, and in the same early morning sunlight the shadows cast by the stalks of cane don’t seem like a net, tethering her to the fields. Rather, they now shelter her simpler path toward a brighter future.