Photo: Malalasekera Foundation chairman Ashan Malalasekera presenting schoolbooks to a student at a function in Kataragama recently. Credit: Manoj Divithuragama. - Photo: 2023

Economic Crisis Threatens Sri Lanka’s Education Gains

By Hemali Wijerathne

COLOMBO (IDN) — Sri Lanka’s free education system, which was judged to have achieved the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for education and is considered a post-independence success story, is now under threat due to the present economic crisis in the country of 22 million people.

The rapidly increasing price of paper is impacting the affordability of school textbooks and exercise books (students use them to take notes and do class exercises). These are becoming out of reach of many poor families. The cost of exercise books has shot up from Rs 50 (USD 0.14) for an 80-page and Rs 450 for a 400-page one last year to Rs 120 and Rs 920, respectively.

As students return to classrooms for the new term this month, parents are grappling with the increased prices of school stationaries The needy parents who are living in remote villages in Sri Lanka have a great challenge of how they can allocate such an amount of money for their children’s education as most of them lead a hand to mouth existence. They have to take the painful decision of which child could be sent to school or not.

A villager in southern Sri Lanka who wanted to be named Athula told IDN that his five grandchildren schooling in grades 2 to 6 are finding it difficult to continue their education. His son’s income as a bus driver was not enough to cover the children’s educational costs.

“The children need to be dressed cleanly and neatly when they go to school. One of my grandsons has been going to school crying every day because his shoes are broken. What can we do?” asked Athula, adding, “this is not something that is happening only to us. This is the situation for most Sri Lankan children”.

A parent of two school-going children noted that the skyrocketing expenses of almost all school supplies had added a further burden on an already strained household budget, with prices having risen to unimaginable heights.

“Earlier, not even two months ago, I used to buy a glue bottle for Rs100. But when I went to buy one recently, I had to pay Rs 300. The price of a box of twelve colour pencils has increased from Rs to Rs 580,” she noted. Further, workbooks required by the school curriculum too had increased in price, with one Sinhala language workbook costing around Rs 500 compared to the old price of Rs 225.

Free education was introduced in Sri Lanka in 1945 in a policy that stated every child above the age of five and not more than 16 is entitled to free education, and it was extended to university education in the 1950s. In the mid-1950s, with the introduction of the national language policy, education became accessible to the rural poor in particular. Before, it was a privilege for English-speaking urban families only.

Sri Lanka’s literacy rate has increased from 13.5% in 1951 to 92.6% by 2022, which is considered a great success story in sustainable development that enabled Sri Lanka to succeed in achieving the MDG of universal primary education.

Sri Lanka has had a great education tradition going back many centuries, with the temple-based Pirivena education tradition dominant before the European colonial era. Now many educationists fear that the literacy rate would go down rapidly because of the prevailing economic crisis.

Working under tough economic conditions, local charities have stepped in to save rural families from falling into the illiteracy traps prevalent in most low-income countries across the world.

One such charity is the Malalasekera Foundation, a reputed social service foundation named after the great Sri Lankan Buddhist scholar Dr G.P Malalasekera and currently chaired by his grandson Ashan Malalasekera. The foundation has been focusing on helping rural children with their education needs for many years. The foundation gave these students free data facilities for their online education during the time of the spreading of the coronavirus. Now they are implementing a program of delivering school books as the new school term begins.

< Credit: Lake House, Colombo.

“Our foundation, since its inception, was at the forefront to aid the children who needed support to receive their education. Malalasekera Foundation does not collect funds to carry out its programs. We use our own resources to carry out our mission of assisting the less privileged,” national organizer and the chief executive officer of the Malalasekera Foundation, Manoj Divithuragama, explained to IDN. 

In this endeavour, they also get the help of charity organizations such as the Foundation of Goodness (FG), which was set up by Kusil Gunasekera and supported by cricket great Muttiah Muralitharan. “With their support, we were able to carry out different programs that uplifted the lives of the people,” says Divithuragama. “Our initiatives in education did not commence with the current economic turmoil experienced or the Covid-19 situation, but these run back to the date when the tsunami hit our beautiful island, disrupting the mental well-being and the education of our children.”

At this time, the foundation established a resource centre for children in the Hambantota area in 2005. “We were able to directly intervene to rebuild the lives of children who lost their parents in the tsunami disaster and to provide counselling for their mental well-being,” Divithuragama added.

Since then, they have also opened three more such centres in Ambalantota, Suriayaweva and Kataragama, the latter a very poor rural community in the south. “At the commencement of the Kataragama children resource centre, we were able to cater to around 300 children who were in need of our support to continue their education and build their lives. We taught English, Mathematics, Sinhala and Music for these children free of charge,’’ he explained, also pointing out that they help Tamil and Muslim villages in the east of the country as well.

“We did not look at the education of these children only from the surface. Instead, we wanted to look after these children from their conception,” explained Divithuragama. “Thus partnering with FG, we launched a program to provide a pack of nutrient and essential food items to pregnant mothers.”

As a Buddhist charity, Malalasekara Foundation is concerned about the spiritual development of children. They have launched several programs for the children who attend the dhamma school (Sunday temple schools) across the southern provinces of Sri Lanka.  This includes providing books and dry rations to families of the students.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, when the continuous education of children from poor families was disrupted due to the digital divide, the foundation set up online access facilities mainly through village temples and gathered children. In Kataragama, the foundation has set up a permanent online education centre for poor children with 40 computers at the historic shrine of Kataragama Devale, where over 600 students are catered for with support from the DP education platform.

“I haven’t a permanent job. I work in labour, and I usually earn Rs 2500 (USD  7) daily. I have no chance of working every day. I get labour work for 10-15 days a month. I have three children. Two of them are schooling. I cannot afford to buy all the exercise books as their present prices are very high, and they exceed my earnings,” Dayal Kapila Gamhewa, a father who the Malalasekera Foundation helps, told IDN.

Another recipient of the foundation’s help is Nadeesha, the mother of a child who received exercise books. “My husband is an electrician. He has no daily fixed income. His earnings are not enough to buy our daily needs. I have two children, one in grade 10 and the other one in grade 4. After we spend our earnings on our food, we have no money to buy books for our children’s education Then how can we send our children to school? It is a great problem we are facing at this moment,” she says.

Such experiences are not uncommon, with people from all socio-economic backgrounds struggling to balance their household living expenses while funding their children’s education.

“Our free education system is under threat,” says Divithuragama. “Education would be impossible to become a reality for many families in the midst of this present economic crisis. Foundations (like ours) may have to step in to help”. [IDN-InDepthNews — 22 January 2023]

Photo: Malalasekera Foundation chairman Ashan Malalasekera presenting schoolbooks to a student at a function in Kataragama recently. Credit: Manoj Divithuragama.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 22 January 2023.

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