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The missing children — absenteeism in Armenia’s schools

2 February 2018
(Armine Avetisyan /OC Media)

There are hundreds of school-age children in Armenia not attending school. While some work to help support their families, others have fallen victim to attitudes towards gender. In villages where there are only one or two girls — a result of of sky-high sex-selective abortion rates — parents sometimes insist that their girl should not study alone in a classroom full of boys.

Thirteen-year-old Davit (whose personal details have been changed) last attended school three years ago. He managed to learn to read and write and is able to count.

‘The important thing is that I can count, in my work this is very important. If I make a mistake with a single number the day’s work would be in vain’, says the boy, who has been buying and selling bottles for two years.

Davit’s family is socially vulnerable; his parents are unemployed. They live in Vanadzor, the capital of the northern Lori Province. His father collects glass bottles from the large bins placed throughout the city, his mother washes them, and he takes them to the receiving point.

‘The prices of bottles differ depending on their shape and volume. There are bottles that sell for ֏5 ($0.01), and there are some that go for ֏200–֏250 ($0.40–$0.50). For example, a three-litre bottle is worth around ֏250. But I don’t find such bottles often. My father mostly brings home beer and vodka bottles, and their prices vary between ֏10 and ֏20 ($0.02–$0.04)’, says Davit, adding that if the day is successful, the family can earn around ֏1,000 ($2) a day.

Gathering glass bottles is not the only work Davit’s family undertakes. His mother works as a janitor in a shop in the city, and his father as a construction worker when there is work on offer.

‘I help my father a lot when there’s lots of work, I go with him and he finishes earlier, and instead of hiring a second worker, they pay me. We need the money. If I go to school, my parents won’t be able to earn enough money alone. But they constantly try to make me go to school. I don’t go voluntarily, I don’t like school. For me it was a waste of time, I don’t understand anything the teachers say’, Davit says.

According to the Armenian Statistical Service, in the 2015/2016 academic year, 302 children failed to graduate from secondary schools in Armenia, of which 191 didn’t attend school because of poor socio-economic conditions. Parents of 87 children did not send their children to school, or did not allow them to go, and the rest were children with disabilities.

Higher rates than officially presented

‘There are three groups of children left without an education in Armenia: the first group is the “visible children” — when a child is admitted to school but after a while stops attending. The second group is children who have never attended school, but are included in some official database. And the third group is the “invisible children” who are not included in any information system’, says Alvard Poghosyan, head of the Department of the  Educational Programmes at UNICEF Armenia.

There is no clear mechanism for counting the number of children not attending schools in Armenia, and Nongovernmental organisations often state that the number of children not attending schools is actually much higher than the official figures.

When UNICEF conducted research into the problem, they found 228 children not receiving an education in Lori Province alone. A pilot project in the region has created an electronic system to detect children not attending schools. The system will monitor absences, providing relevant data to the authorities.

Festive expenses are more important than the education

‘Teachers and social workers have come after me a thousand times; they register me for school. But they don’t force me to go. Especially now I’m not going to school. The holidays are approaching, who will put food on the table if not me?’, says Davit.

He says they need around ֏100,000 ($205) to have a modest holiday dinner, which his parents alone cannot earn.

‘Let me tell you that I have a little sister; she’s nine years old. She’s still young and believes in Santa Claus and has written a letter to him asking for gifts. I’m going to buy any toys that my sister wants. I adore her, she must have everything best and not stand out with her clothes and belongings’, says the boy.

Unlike Davit, his sister is attending school. Their Parents say she studies well.

‘Davit never liked studying, we forced him to go to school, and he barely survived there for three years. My daughter is different, she studies well, she dreams of becoming a doctor, and now the three of us work so at least her dream can come true’, Davit’s mother says.

The only girl in the village

Many in Armenia say girls should be well-educated — get a higher education and become a specialist with a diploma — in order to send the diploma to her husband’s family after her marriage as an integral part of the traditional dowry.

However, there are some girls who don’t have the privilege to receive an education at school.

‘My daughter is very clever — she likes to read and write, she learnt letters and numbers at the age of five — I’m sure that in whatever profession she chooses she will be a desired specialist’, says seven-year-old Gayane’s father, who lives in a village in Gegharkunik Province in northeast Armenia (some of the family’s details have been changed).

But right now only her father and mother can admire Gayane’s knowledge; she does not go to school. Her parents came to this decision together after they found out that her class would have only boys and their daughter.

‘There is a deficit of girls in our village; the boys are more numerous. I wouldn’t like my daughter to be the only girl in class, she’s a very delicate child, the boys could offend her, hurt her. Maybe she would grow up to be like a boy among the boys. Besides, I don’t need my daughter to be in the eyes of the boys’, Gayane’s father says.

He is convinced that if he took her to school, she would ‘mature’ earlier.

‘To fall in love, to make “friends”… It could happen anywhere, but if my daughter were the only girl in class, all the intrigue would be around her; it’s not appropriate for our family. I’ll send her to school next year, but in the city’, Gayane’s father says. he has already chosen a school where there are more girls studying. Until then, they teach their child every day with school textbooks at home, hoping she will be able to attend the second grade and keep up with her peers.

No girls to send to school

‘There are classrooms in remote rural schools of Armenia where exclusively boys study. Either there are no girls of school age in these villages or there are only a few and their parents don’t want their daughters to be in the same classroom with only boys’, says Garik Hayrapetyan, from the United Nations Population Fund in Armenia (UNFPA).

According to Hayrapetyan, the problem is particularly obvious in the Gegharkunik and Aragatsotn provinces. He says there are many classes in these villages with just one or two girls, or no girls at all.

‘When we implemented a project in this region in 2013, it was clear we would have this sort of problem in the near future; the rate of sex-selective abortions is highest in these regions. While in the whole republic, 112 boys are born for every 100 girls, five years ago the ratio was 124 boys to 100 girls’, says Hayrapetyan.

[Read on OC Media: Armenian parents dream of having a son]

The UN has not yet assessed the number of girls forbidden by parents from going to school and in which regions they live, but steps are taken to get a more complete image.

‘I’m talking about a visual impression now. When we enter schools, especially in Gegharkunik Province, we meet very few girls. We have wondered why there are no girls, and are told, for example, that there is one girl in the village who should be attending the following class, but her parents forbid her. I can’t name names for privacy reasons, and in many cases they don’t give us names. The problem is very serious, and we will try to help resolve it in the near future’, says Hayrapetyan.

UNFPA Armenia has submitted a programme to the government which would carry out specific activities in the regions to collect accurate data on the number of children being prevented from attending school, and to begin to deal with the issue.

The programme will start in 2018 if it’s approved.

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