December 10 is Human Rights Day. This story shows that too many children around the world still cannot fully exercise their right to education. That’s why education as a human right is a key principle for GPE.
It is hard to miss Bendu Ben in a class of second graders. At 14, she is the oldest child in the class. She feels a little bit embarrassed about it: “I was 10 when I started school,” she explains. “And then I had to repeat grade one twice.”
Bendu’s story is not uncommon, especially in Liberia, where an estimated 82% of children in primary school (grades 1-6) are over-age. School attendance actually peaks at age 14, when more than 86% of children are in school—most of them in primary school.
What may be uncommon, is the reason: “I failed English.”
Repeating classes for failing to pay for the exam fee
Not exactly failed—it turns out that Bendu’s grandmother, who she lives with, could not afford to pay the 200 Liberian dollar (US$2.22) ‘printing cost’ for her English tests. All of her other teachers had waived the fees for their tests, but both years the English teacher had refused to do the same.
Though Bendu’s school is tuition free, it still charges informal fees to offset operating costs.
These extra costs are consistently identified as a barrier to education, excluding children from school, or as in Bendu’s case, impeding their progress.
This year Bendu’s grandmother paid for the tests. Bendu is delighted to have finally progressed to the second grade, but fears fighting the same battle for years to come. “But I will keep coming back,” she says. Because Bendu has a dream. One day she wants to be a doctor.
Poverty, chores, cultural norms keep children behind
Unfortunately, the statistics are not on her side—children who are many years older than their grade level are less likely to complete their education—nor, apparently, are some of the teachers.
As we wrap up the interview, one of the teachers, having overheard Bendu’s story, tells us: “As you know, there is more than one side to every story. Bendu is not regular at school. That is the reason she is doing so poorly.”
And so after school we walked with the teacher to Bendu’s house to investigate.
On the way, Bendu explains that her parents, like so many others in rural parts of Liberia, left several years ago to find a job in the city. They left Bendu, their only child, here with her grandmother.
Since then, her mother has visited only once. And now, whenever her grandmother calls to ask her mother for money to help support Bendu, she switches the phone off. “Now I have become just another financial burden for my grandmother to bear,” she says.
An impossible burden
When we arrive at the house, her grandmother is out, but her aunt is there. She knows Bendu is often absent from school—usually because she is late. The teacher explains that any child who arrives after the morning flag ceremony is considered late, and they are sent home for the day. Asked why Bendu is often late, her aunt says it’s because she is slow to do her few morning chores...”
It is a story the teacher has heard again and again from many of the girls in his school. And he is unsympathetic. But the fact is, adolescent girls in Liberia are at high risk of missing classes, falling behind and ultimately dropping out altogether—and having too much work to do at home is one of the main reasons this happens.
Later, when we are alone, Bendu gives us her side of the story: “Before I can go to school I have to sweep the house, wash the dishes, haul water and clean all of the rooms. My cousin used to live here and we would do all of these things together. But now it’s only me. I wake up at 5 am and sometimes I am still not finished by the time I need to leave for school. And I am not allowed to leave until all of the work is done. When I tell my grandmother I have to go or I’m going to be late, she just says, ‘That’s your problem. You figure it out.’
But perhaps if there is one thing Bendu’s story illustrates more than any other it is that the situation for overage children in Liberia is complex. Behind each child’s story lies a web of factors—in Bendu’s case poverty, migration in search of work, lack of funding for schools, counterproductive school policies and cultural norms that place little value on education.
This is an impossible burden for any child to carry—and one that puts the futures, hopes and dreams of millions of the world’s most vulnerable children at risk.
Since 2011, GPE has been supporting Liberia with a $40 million grant to strengthen Liberia’s education system, particularly the management capacity and accountability across the sector. The grant also helped build more than 300 classrooms and housing units for teachers, distributed more than 2.5 million textbooks, teachers’ guides and reading books to schools across the country, and gave school grants to more than 2,500 schools.