December 19, 2007

No document, no school

Honduran boyJounger (sort of pronounced John-hair)

Honduras recently passed a law that allows children to attend school even if they don't have a birth certificate. Of course it makes sense that birth certificates are required, but this is Honduras! Sometimes getting a birth certificate is impossible. Lots of children are not born in a hospital. Lots of fathers disappear. Mothers sometimes cannot travel to wherever they need to go to get one or don't have the documents or the money that they need to get it.

Maybe I'm being cynical, but I'm betting that that the law change was based on pressure from the World Bank or some other international aid association. The World Bank puts a lot of emphasis on education as being one of the keys for a reduction in poverty. When children are completely denied that right just because someone didn't or couldn't get that important piece of paper, that is just wrong.

El Jefe, also being cynical, says that he is sure that some relative of one of the diputados (congressmen) or some other important person must have had a birth certificate problem, so they passed the law.

Whatever the reason, it was a bittersweet moment for me. I couldn't help thinking about the two children that I know who were not allowed to go to school. And since I don't know all that many children, it makes me wonder how many others have been doomed to extreme poverty because of the prior law.

In one case the parents were dead (the father was murdered and the mother died of AIDS). For whatever reason, they had never gotten his birth certificate and his grandparents weren't able to provide the proof needed. He was 8 or 9 when I first met him and had never been to school. Now at 14 or so, he will never go and has already been involved in some petty crimes.

Nora's oldest son, Jounger, in the photos, had a birth certificate with a typo. The certificate gave his birth date as 5 years later than it actually was. He was denied entry to school by the asinine bureaucrats, even though it was obvious that he was old enough to go. Nora tried to get the birth certificate corrected, even spending food money to take a bus trip to the city where it was issued. No one would do anything to help. Rules are rules and documents, no matter how erroneous, are inviolable!

To show the powerlessness of the poor, there was nothing Nora could do to right this ridiculously wrong situation. Someone had made a stupid mistake and was not about to admit it. No one else had the power or common sense to correct it. Every year when school started, she would try to get Jounger in, pointing to his height and saying that the birth certificate was wrong and every year she would be told that rules are rules!

Imagine in your country what a scandal it would be if a mother went to the media with this story of extreme bureaucratic nonsense! What a field day they would have exposing the stupidity of the government bureaucrats. The same thing happens here with the ID cards that everyone must get when they turn 18. If someone types your name wrong, you might as well change your name, because the card will NEVER be corrected unless you have a friend in the bureaucracy.

So, Jounger started first grade at somewhere around 10 years old. He HATED it! The younger children teased him because he was at least a head taller than all of his classmates. The older kids teased him about being a dummy. He would get upset, leave school, and come home. Carlos, his step-father, started taking him to school, but as soon as Carlos left, Jounger would turn around and go home.

Carlos said that Jounger cried all the time and told Carlos that he would rather be beaten for disobeying than go to school. (I'm tearing up here.) Carlos cannot read or write so he understands the importance of school and kept stressing that to the boy. He stuck to his guns about Jounger attending school.

Because of his and Nora's perseverance, Jounger has since done well. Nora mentioned that his teacher said that he may even be eligible for a scholarship next year. I don't know exactly what that means because public schools are supposedly free in Honduras. Maybe a scholarship pays for supplies or uniforms, I'm not sure. Whatever help it is, this is definitely a family that needs it. There are lots of children in Honduras who don't go to school because their parents cannot afford pencils and notebooks for all or sometimes any of their children. I know that sounds incredible, but it is true.

The day of our party, Jounger came with Nora and spent a happy day watching cartoons on television. When I asked him about school, he enthusiastically said that he likes it now and he proudly told me that he had passed second grade.

I'm hopeful that he will overcome this horrid start to his education. Trying to look at the bright side, maybe his maturity over the other students has helped him. I just hope that Honduras doesn't have another law that will kick him out of school 5 years before he's finished.

Isn't he just the cutest little boy you've ever seen? And he is as sweet, polite and respectful as he is cute. He deserved a chance.

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