It should be simple. A country ensures free education for all children, and everyone benefits.
But we all know it’s not that easy.
One in 10 children of primary school age is not in school, with 67 million children out of school worldwide — and more than half of them expected never to enter school.
Why? One reason for poor families is cost. Even if tuition is free, being in a classroom costs money — buying supplies, getting to school, paying for related expenses. For the world’s poorest children, there are extra hurdles: attending school means they are not working to help support the family; and poor families that don’t own the land where they live and work often lack documents needed to enroll their children in school.
I had a stark reminder of this challenge — and part of the solution — on a recent trip to India. Government policies to mandate free and compulsory education for all children between the ages of six and 14 have dramatically improved enrollment rates — cutting the number of children out of school from 20 million in 2002 to 4 million in 2008. This is a great success that should be celebrated.
But it is also worthwhile to take a close look at the last mile. Many of the children who remain out of school are the same as those missing out in country after country around the world: poor, rural and girls — and in India, those from “scheduled tribes,” traditionally oppressed tribal groups recognized in the country’s constitution.
Being deprived an education is not only a problem for the individual girl or boy. Missing that opportunity hurts their future families, as well as their country. Each extra year of primary school boosts a person’s future wages. Girls who finish primary school have fewer children, and healthier and better educated children. And research has shown a link between educating girls and an increase in countries’ GDPs.
So, what can be done to make sure that all children get that chance?
Part of the answer lies in the land. In the state of Odisha, at least 40 percent of rural families, many of whom are tribal, lack legal rights to the land on which they depend. Often they’ve been farming this land for generations but without legal title. Without this documentation, they often cannot access the free tuition and related services and subsidies to which they are entitled.
With Landesa’s support, the government is helping families in Odisha get land titles so they can invest in their land, their children and their future. I had the privilege of meeting some of these families in October and touring their plots, abundant with vegetables and fruit trees that provide food for them and surplus to sell. Many keep animals on their plots and several have planted teak or other timber trees. Women and men hold joint legal rights to this land and both talked about the benefits of increased income, greater security and the ability to give their children better opportunities.
But when I asked how life has improved other than new crops, several new landowners described how their land patta (land title document) was the ticket needed for their children to attend school. Children from scheduled tribes are guaranteed free admission and educational stipends for primary schools, but families need a “caste certificate” to prove they are tribal, and they could not get this certificate without a land patta. The patta had finally given them identity in the government’s eyes and in turn access to local schools. These same pattas are also required for their older children to gain admission to the more distant post-primary residential school, which provide free room and board.
Like India, most national governments have committed to the United Nations goal that by 2015 all children will be able to complete primary school. Unfortunately, the world will likely fall short of this aim, but there has been significant progress, and we know that relatively simple changes can spur long-lasting benefits.
As I saw in Odisha, land rights not only yield productive farmers. They also nurture students who grow to become engineers, doctors, executives, parents, elected officials, scientists and productive members of society in countless other ways. That “second harvest” has an impact far beyond the initial crop.