Nicaragua’s high levels of inequality and marginalization are not being helped by a public education system that is underfunded and underperforming, according to the head of Save the Children, a U.K.-based non-governmental organization that promotes children’s rights in 120 countries.
“Young people [need] an opportunity to really learn to think for themselves, and by and large the education system is clearly not providing that opportunity,” says Jasmine Whitbread, chief executive officer for Save the Children International.
Whitbread, who was in Nicaragua for a three-day visit last week, said she was shocked to see the disparities in development between the city and the countryside. While Managua has “many of the trappings of a middle-income country,” she says rural villages in the countryside still look like some of the poorest parts of Africa.
“You have communities like the ones I visited yesterday in La Dalia (Matagalpa), where the majority of the population is living in shacks with plastic walls and no toilets—it’s shocking,” Whitbread told The Nicaragua Dispatch in an interview. “These children are growing up in the same conditions I see in other parts of the world, in the least developed countries in Africa.”
Whitbread says the Sandinista government “needs to be held to account by those communities and by Nicaragua’s civil society organizations and encouraged to look in places like La Dalia…and not look away.”
Government officials, Whitbread insists, must “think about all of Nicaragua’s children, and not just their own children.”
Aid cuts affecting children
Save the Children began work in Nicaragua 25 years ago and focuses on six program areas that reach approximately 995,000 children living in situations of poverty and social exclusion. While human-development indicators have improved in recent years in Nicaragua, Save the Children reports that “progress to reduce poverty and improve access and quality of education and health services has been slow and limited” in areas where it works, especially Jinotega, Matagalpa and the Caribbean Coast.
In addition, the group says the global economic crisis and “political tensions” have affected support previously provided to Nicaragua by donor countries.
The organization laments that “the reduction in bilateral development cooperation has had a direct impact on children.”
Improvements in rural healthcare
It’s not all bad news. Despite the grim reality in Nicaragua’s countryside, Whitbread says there have been some notable advances being made in access to rural healthcare.
She says the communities in which Save the Children has partnered with the Ministry of Health, there has been a 50% drop in child mortality rates over the past three years.
“These were children who were dying from preventable illness, pneumonia and diarrhea. With simple interventions—a community-based response with volunteer health workers—you can stop children from dying,” Whitbread says. “And in this day in age, there is no reason why children should be dying.”
Whitbread says Save the Children’s work with the health ministry has been so effective that Nicaraguan health officials are planning to broaden that experience out into a nationwide policy, which will put the country on a much firmer footing to meet its UN Millennium Development Goals of reducing child mortality rates by two-thirds by 2015.
“On health, the government is really beginning to show some determination to get the child mortality statistics down to where they need to be,” she says.
But some of the government’s public health policies—especially the total ban on life-saving therapeutic abortions—are downright addlebrained. Save the Children has joined other international groups in denouncing Nicaragua’s draconian ban on the life-saving medical interventions as a violation of women’s and children’s rights.
“We know what happens in countries where that approach is taken—women’s health is severely affected because they will seek alternative methods [for abortion],” Whithead says. “It’s just very, very unfortunate. It’s not an evidenced-based approach [to delivering healthcare], it’s an ideological-based approach.”
But the government’s church-pandering is inconsistent, she notes. Whithead says access to contraception, which the church also frowns upon, has actually improved in rural communities under the Sandinista government.
The issue of teen pregnancy, however, has not improved. Nicaragua still has the highest teen pregnancy rate in Latin America—a level comparable to only the most backwards regions of Sub-Saharan Africa. And that, Whithead says, goes back to the failings of the education system.
“It has been statistically proven around the world that a girl who makes it through secondary school is much less likely to have children at a young age,” Whitbread says. “So getting kids educated is basic.”
High teen pregnancy rates are also due to gender stereotyping, she adds.
During a visit to a community in Tuma-La Dalia, Whithead says a 15-year-old student gave a presentation on gender stereotypes, listing off the most commonly perceived roles that define men and women in society. Topping the list of male roles were the words: “provider” and “violent.” Topping the females’ list of gender roles was “sex object.”
“It was mind-blowing,” Whithead says. “It painted the picture of the environment in which the children are growing up and the expectations on young men and women. You’re not a man unless you are violent and you are not a woman unless you are an object of sexual desire. And that also leads to teen pregnancy.”
Last in Class
While Nicaragua’s children face many challenges of equality and exclusion, the public education system is ill-equipped to deal with the situation.
The government, worrisomely, doesn’t seem overly concerned with fixing the problem. Instead, the government continues to reduce spending on education. A budget reform passed earlier this month reduces spending for education next year to 3.5% of its Gross Domestic Product, down from 3.7% this year. While the bottom line will actually be a slight increase since the total budget has increased, the reduction in percentage of budgetary spending suggests that education is considered a lesser priority. Analysts argue the government should be spending nearly twice that amount to improve its substandard school system.
Money that is being spent on education seems to be focused mostly on padding enrollment numbers, rather than improving the quality of education (Nicaragua has the worst-paid teachers in Central America).
“The focus has been on quantity –getting the kids into school, which is important, but not at the cost of quality,” Whitbread said.
The organization’s CEO says when she visited Nicaraguan schools she saw “much older kids in younger classes who are still not able to read and write.”
The government needs to do more to turn classrooms into actual learning environments, Whithead said.
“It’s not just the money, it’s the policy. There needs to be a real commitment to improve education and to get kids learning thinking skills,” she says.
While there remains a lot to do in all areas of early childhood development in Nicaragua, the government’s overall commitment to education doesn’t appear to be as strong as its commitment to healthcare, Whithead claims.
“I think we are seeing more movement in health than we are in education,” she said.