Long Walk to School

Upgrading Myanmar’s rural education will be a tough call


Khee Khee Phown, left, on the long walk to her rural school. Photo: Hong Sar/Mizzima

Khee Khee Phown is torn between her family’s farm and the potential freedom that education might provide her. 

As the 11-year-old girl walks to school through the fields of Pantanaw Township in the Ayerawady Delta she tells Mizzima Weekly of her fears that her struggle for education may come to naught. 

“I have no future. I don’t know what I want to be in future, but I want to attend until the school finishes,” she said. “But my family also needs me to help them on their farm.” 

Five days a week, during school term, Khee Khee Phown walks for about an hour and a half through the fields and forests, come rain or sun, in her quest for education. That’s a three-hour round trip daily.

For the young girl, the long walk to school comes down to a hope of bettering herself.

It echoes Myanmar’s new incoming leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has long stressed its importance of education.

Education vs labour on the farm

Khee Khee Phown’s story is common amongst many families that make up the vast bulk of Myanmar’s population. Over two thirds of the population live and work in the agricultural sector, an industry or way of life that still relies heavily on manual labour - a typically picturesque scene of people in the fields and bullock carts but one that hides a grim reality.

Myanmar’s education system has suffered from decades of neglect. But the situation is particularly acute in the rural areas, as glimpsed here in the Ayerawaddy Delta.

During school term Khee Khee Phown walks with her younger brother Moe Aung Yin, 6, on the long trail to and from school. As the young girl explains, her future appears set – and it is not the future she wants.

Her older brother and two older sisters have all stopped school early, either to help her family with manual labour on the farm, the pursuit of a small-scale family agricultural business, or to work in a city to help bring personal income and support for the family. 

One of her older sisters stopped school at Grade 4, at the age of 12, and is helping on the farm. Her other sister, aged 18, has gone to work in a city in Kayin State, and her 21-yearold brother is also working away from home. This is typical for families in rural areas.

Khee Khee Phown’s family house

– part cement and part wood and bamboo - lies on its own outside the Mayan Village. It’s a typical rural scene with cows, bullocks, chickens and pigs, and the inevitable barking dogs that greet strangers.

It is the only life Khee Khee Phown has known. But in school books she glimpses another future. 

Only she and her younger brother are left to take the lonely walk to school. 

“I am not afraid to go to school. I am not lazy to go to school. I don’t know why I am really enjoy to go to school, but I can’t think what I want to be in the future. Maybe after I finish the school I will help my parents to work in the farm, but I want to go to school until Grade 12 if possible,” she said. 

Makeshift school

Khee Khee Phown’s destination every day is far from adequate. The district school is made of bamboo with plastic sheets and all the desks appear to be broken.

Two teachers pursue a labour of love teaching a total of 60 children, aged from five to 15.

One of the children’s parents says he has called on the government for support, to no avail.

“We have asked for government support, but they were never reply to us. We have to pay the teachers from our own pockets. All people in the villages combine their money and provide rice in order to hire a teacher,” he said.

Most of the children who live far away, struggle to get to the school, most if not all forced to walk. And it is a struggle to get an education. The challenge is not just the fact that little hands could help in labour on the farm.

Even with free education, the families of many students in rural areas are hard-pushed to afford to extra materials or possible transportation to school.

Khee Khee Phown’s parents are lucky their daughter and younger son walk. Given the nature of the trail, the only other option would be to be transported by motorcycle, but the family the family only has a bicycle and that is needed for use on their farm and to reach the market.

Another challenge comes down to gender. Boys tend to take precedence over girls when it comes to schooling. It’s cultural. It’s ingrained. 

Both genders suffer but girls like Khee Khee Phown are more likely to pay a higher price – pulled out of school too early.

Helping the family

For Khee Khee Phown, when it is a holiday or a day off from the school, she always helps her parents.

Khee Khee Phown’s father, U Aung, is not blind to her daughter’s quest for education and the potential it has to better the lives of his children and the family.

“For my children I offer support as best I can, but sometimes the family business is also very important. So I sent my son and daughter away to work and to support our home. For my daughter who goes to school, I would like to her go until Grade 10, because in our family we should have one educated person, because we never went to school before,” the 46-year-old father said. 

“I sell everything I have, I sell chickens, ducks to get money, and I support my children to go to school, and for the family,” the father said.

Not alone

Khee Khee Phown is not alone. She is one of millions of children in Myanmar torn between bettering their life by education and the call to help their family on their farms or in their family businesses.

This is a challenge not only in Myanmar but across Asia. Yet Myanmar has got left behind due in large part to the failure of previous military governments over five decades to provide not only the financial input for education but also the message that education matters.

As the new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi comes into power, education will gain in importance.

But there will be no quick fix for Khee Khee Phown. Her chance for education hangs on her father’s ability to rustle up enough money to have one “educated person” in the family. 

It’s a tough call.

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