Think about the phrase “access to education”. There are currently thousands of people thinking about the same, more specifically on how to expand it. It’s not just about building a school or buying sets of textbooks: it’s about making sure that children are able to reach that school and to read those books. Access to education is about much more than providing basic materials. What are those materials worth, if a child is not learning how to read? What is a new classroom worth, if a child risks his or her life on the way to school?
I taught in Rwanda for five years, and one of the most important lessons I experienced was that the improvement of education does not happen in a vacuum. For parents to send their children to school, they need to be able to support the family without the aid of that child’s labor. For children to make it safely to school, the roads need to be free of landmines and soldiers. For children to learn while in school, teachers need to be trained and paid. And for teachers to be well trained, well, we are back to access to education again.
There is no add-and-stir solution to improving education or to ensure that all children gain access to school. It is an intricate system of economic and political stability, social norms, and even environmental factors. Did you know, for example, that water was a huge factor in education? While I lived in Rwanda, the importance of water became clearer to me than it ever has. On days when we did not have running water at our house, we were unable to use the shower or the toilet. We were unable to wash our clothes, to stay clean. We could not boil pasta or make a cup of tea. Yes, some issues seem more trivial than others, but for someone who has always had water readily available through a tap, the lack of tea can be the drop that makes the cup run over!
At school, the lack of water meant no water latrines. This might not seem a big factor on its own, but it prevented many girls from going to school, especially during their period. Missing out on days of learning every month takes its toll in the long run, and many girls struggle to keep up. It was not only the lack of running water that influenced access to education. Some days it was the excess of water that made us all, teachers and students alike, unable to learn. The rainy season in Rwanda lasts for months every year. The rain pounds heavily on the metal roofs of our schools, making a noise so loud that it is impossible to listen to anything else. When it rains for days, the mud roads turn into rivers. Without paved roads, it can be impossible to make it to school. Some days, the muddy rivers were so strong, that we could not even make it out of our house. Access to education depends on numerous factors. Often it is not a case of building a school and shipping in books, but of building infrastructure, of securing an area, of ensuring running water. Development is an intricate process. The next time someone talks about “access to education”, you should think about that.
By: Inga Storen / @inga_storen