Free to Learn in the Philippines

By Martin Nanawa

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 farm to feed her and her eight siblings, but though they are lucky to own the patch of land they farm, their income is meager, and her seven elder siblings all, at one time or another, helped till, plant and harvest. Four of them have moved out to start their own families, leaving the younger children to take their turn helping their parents.

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

Jessa outside her home in the southern Philippines.

And 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 early 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.”

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.

Then, when Jessa was in seventh grade, ChildFund’s interventions against child labor reached her through a long-term project called LEAP, which focuses on children involved in — or at risk of being involved in — the sugarcane industry. Through advocacy and livelihood interventions in vulnerable communities, LEAP 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 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 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 helped challenged learners improve, and they also 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!

Jessa and her friend walk home from school.

“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 no longer seem like a net, tethering her to the fields. Now they’re more like a ladder, leading toward a brighter future.

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