It is time to change the narrative - Measuring the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the education of children in tea plantation communities in Sri Lanka

By Monica Vincent and Priya Kitnasamy

Efforts to contain COVID-19 have included the closure of schools globally. So far, 1.2 billion children in 186 countries have been affected. Given that access to internet and digital resources is not uniform for all students, existing inequalities have been exposed and compounded the lived experiences of the children of the tea plantation communities in Sri Lanka.

The sudden closure of schools on 12 March to tackle the spread of COVID-19 saw the education system responding swiftly with a slew of interim measures to seek to continue education through online and other methods of distance education. However, the shift to online learning received mixed reactions amplifying the already existing socio-economic inequalities entrenched in the state’s educational framework including those children living on tea plantations.

LIRNEasia’s latest report states that only 34 percent of Sri Lankan households with children (i.e. those aged 18 years and below) has some type of connection to an internet device to access e-learning, ranging from online classrooms to tutorials disseminated through social media platforms. However, amongst the lowest socio-economic groups the number of households with access to internet connectivity dropped significantly to 21 percent. Clearly, this means the vast majority of students have been unable to access e-learning during the COVID-19 school closures.

Educating children in plantation communities is not a low-hanging fruit

For the children in plantation communities, access to e-learning during the COVID-19 school closures has simply not been viable.

Parents have had to either mortgage or acquire small loans to firstly buy mobile phones, and then subsequently top-these up with data packages to support their children connect to internet. Even then the pre-requisites of uninterrupted electricity and reliable internet connectivity are uneven and patchy at best, and both children and parents lack the knowledge to understand and navigate online tools in a safe and secure way.

Their situation is further compounded by the lack of a suitable learning environment as families including children reside in line-houses. A single barrack accommodates between six and 12 or 24 line rooms, which are usually dark without windows and ventilation. Most of the children in the plantation community reside with extended families of approximately six to 11 members sharing space and living in one line room.

In these circumstances it is not surprising that, children belonging to plantation communities have trailed behind their rural and urban counterparts with respect to education.  According to a 2017 World Bank report, when compared to those in urban and rural sectors, enrollment rates in plantation communities are the lowest at all education levels. In addition, the children of plantation communities are less likely than their urban counterparts to complete both primary and secondary education. These low levels of school completion rates are highly correlated with higher levels of poverty within the plantation community. In terms of classroom learning environments, the plantation sector trails behind urban and rural sectors in a whole range of factors including equipment and materials, functional toilets with sufficient water and overall hygiene. A vast majority of school teachers lack adequate skills training. Rural and plantation schools find it especially difficult to both recruit and retain teachers teaching core subjects such as English, Science and Mathematics.

The need for effective and transformative solutions

The disruption caused by COVID-19 school closures is risking children belonging to plantation communities of being left behind. If the state fails to deliver effective, innovative, timely and multisectoral responses, the children in plantation communities are in danger of not only dropping out of school but also being pushed into child (including bonded) labour. The commitment of the Government of Sri Lanka as a part of Alliance 8.7 and its goal towards eradicating child labour by 2022 calls for bigger and bolder actions. If the government is going to make significant progress towards meeting this goal it must take more concerted efforts to meet its obligations to ensuring that all Sri Lankan children can exercise their right to education.

One of the first steps for the government to consider is the resumption of the mid-day meals scheme or a suitable alternative involving an adequate supply of dry rations. The plantation communities constitute amongst the poorest in Sri Lanka, and for the children in these communities, school closures have deprived them of not just an education but also a daily meal on the school premises. Given the disruption, disparities and difficulties created by school closures, those who work directly with children in affected communities told Amnesty that, the government should aim to establish a level playing field for all students. For example, besides the ongoing online teaching methods, the government should disseminate printed hand-outs of educational materials directly to students especially those residing in plantations who are otherwise difficult to reach through online teaching. Further, for the children who were due to sit exams this academic year, as a fair measure, the education administration should base results on those exam assessments completed by schools up until this February.

Appropriate home-grown pedagogies in education suited to the social, economic and cultural landscape of particular communities have been rarely designed and implemented by education authorities. Yet there is another way. Community level organizations such as Plantation Rural Education Organisation (PREDO) have been at the frontline of the COVID-19 response engaging with the children and their families in building resilient communities. According to the director Michael Joachim, “Education must be pragmatic, relevant and bring transformative changes in the lives of children”. During COVID-19 school closures, through their dedicated teachers, the organization has continued to serve at the frontline by imparting information about health and hygiene measures to children and their families, promote ecological sustainability by engaging children in home gardening, provide psychological counselling for adults suffering from depression and with the support of Dikoniya and USAID, the organization has been able to supply dry rations along with sanitary products. The role of community organizations such as PREDO in the challenging times of COVID-19 is a stellar example of alternative pedagogies that responds to and resonates within the context of the most marginalized children and their families.

Some surveys identify school sanitation including cleaning, maintenance and regular water supply as a persistent problem especially in plantation schools. The lockdown provides an opportunity to set-up functional toilets and upgrade sanitation facilities which would not only enable COVID-19 hand wash hygiene but also go on to assist girls in maintaining their privacy and mensural hygiene with dignity.

Women and girls have faced differentiated and disproportionate impacts during the pandemic response exacerbating the routine human rights violations and abuses that many experience. COVID-19 issues are not gender neutral, and any response through policies and programs which lacks inclusion of gender and an intersectional lens is set to derail the little progress made in advancing the rights of women and girls. COVID-19 school closures have increased the risk of children’s exposure to domestic work including as carers as well as abuse, exploitation and violence. Female children are often in the most vulnerable situation as parents (and in some families, single mothers) leave for work to pluck tea leaves, the children are left home alone fending for themselves. They are both victims of, and witnesses to abuse and violence, and they are hurting today, not merely because of the risk of exposure to the virus but also because of the lack of robust and accountable child rights protection services and mechanisms. In this context, it is essential that the State through its child protection authorities ensures that all children are protected from exploitation and abuse whilst promoting a culture that promotes and advances the rights of the child

COVID-19 presents itself an opportunity to reset

As Sri Lanka is gradually rolling-out a phased relaxation of lockdowns and lifting curfews, there is  a narrow window of opportunity for the Government of Sri Lanka to redefine the systemic inequalities; and to ensure that the COVID-19 response is inclusive, equitable, sustainable and upholds the dignity and rights of all, especially those children and families of plantation communities, by prioritizing their lived experiences and to build and integrate a just and fair recovery.

It is crucial for the Government to take decisive action matched by adequate resources focused on the special needs of the children of the plantation community. Otherwise, it risks this and future generations falling further behind thereby undermining Sri Lanka’s progress in the South Asia region towards achieving SDG goals and leaving nobody behind

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Background: Sri Lanka’s tea sector is comprised of some 450 plantations spread across the country and is relatively isolated from broader society. The plantation sector is an ethno-linguistic minority comprising around 4.4 percent of the total population of Sri Lanka. In the 1860s the British, colonial rulers of Sri Lanka then called Ceylon, shipped in thousands of ethnic Tamils from south India to work as cheap labour in the coffee (later tea), coconut and rubber plantations that were the mainstay of the Sri Lankan economy. They were (and still are in many cases) housed in barrack-type “line” rooms and barely ventured out of their homes apart from to work or the tea estates. The most recent all-island census of the population enumerates this group in 14 of the island’s 25 districts: Nuwara Eliya, Badulla, Ratnapura, Kandy, Kegalle, Kalutara, Matara, Matale, Galle, Monaragala, Colombo, Kurunegala, Puttalam and Gampaha (in decreasing order). Women account for over 60 percent of the workforce of about 250,000 people, all of them descendants of indentured servants brought from India by the British over a century ago to pluck the lucrative leaves. Source: Institute for Policy Studies and Institute for Social Development.

 Written by Monica Vincent, Policy Advisor, Discrimination Based on Work and Descent  and Priya Kitnasamy, Executive Assistant, South Asia Regional Office