Universal access to education in Honduran rural areas like Nahuaterique is a goal yet to be achieved
Every passing car gives him hope.
Juan listens carefully to every sound, ready to thumb a lift whenever a car passes by. Sometimes, he is lucky and he can jump in the back of a pickup. Most of the time, he has to keep walking. Three hours to go and another three to come back. It's a long way for a thirteen-year-old child to walk to school, but it's his way of life.
Juan lives in a remote rural area in the mountains of Nahuaterique, land originally belonging to El Salvador that was transferred to Honduras in 1992. Although 6,500 people live in this area, the roads are still unpaved, there are no supermarkets nor pharmacies and the only health centre in town is often closed.
Two decades ago, there weren't any schools in Nahuaterique. Today, the situation has improved and there are 11 centres of education. Still, universal access to education in Honduran rural areas like Nahuaterique is a goal yet to be achieved.
According to a 2010 report by the Honduran Commission of Human Rights, approximately 220,000 young people, roughly 10 percent of the population between the ages of five and 17, have no access to the education system. Amongst these children, 75.3 percent live in rural areas.
"Our main objective is to provide education to all young people," says Marco Antonio Perez Ventura, director of Nahuaterique primary school. "We want to guarantee high scholastic standards, but the main problem is funding. We have no money for textbooks, nor for school equipment and building renovations."
Amongst the many problems affecting rural areas, Ventura underlines the lack of opportunities for children who want to pursue higher education. According to a 2012 official report, only three out of ten Honduran young people have access to secondary education.
"We encourage our youth to follow professional careers," says Ventura. "But many pupils at the age of 13 leave school to start work in the fields, because there are no secondary schools nearby. To help overcome this problem, we are working with the Instituto Hondureño de Educación por Radio (IHRE) on their distance learning radio project."
This programme was launched in 1989 by Jesuit missionaries. It offers opportunities for high quality learning to anyone who, for whatever reason, cannot access education.
"Some teachers give their free time to help run this project," explains Ventura. "The government doesn't wish to open a secondary school here, so at the moment this is our only option. Currently, we have 75 students following the course. Many of our young people work in the fields in the morning and then walk three or four hours to attend school in the afternoon."
In a vicious cycle that is hard to break; poverty hinders access to education and lack of education leads to growing poverty. The 2006 Honduras Poverty Assessment from the World Bank states that low levels of education are inextricably linked to low levels of economic growth.
Lesvia Rosa Lopez, a teacher at the primary school Marco Aurelio in Marcala, has been working with rural and urban schools and has noticed many differences.
"In Marcala parents are more aware of the importance of school attendance," she says. "However, in the rural areas numerous children miss many months of school and they stay at home to help their parents, especially during the coffee harvest seasons."
Yet, Lopez highlights how supportive rural communities can be. Parents help each other and contribute as much as they can to buy equipment for the school.
To foster community participation in rural schools, Honduras in 1999 launched PROHECO (Proyecto Hondureño de Educación Comunitaria), a community-based education program funded by World Bank. By 2005, more than 2,000 PROHECO schools had been established.
In PROHECO schools teachers are hired by local school boards, not by the Ministry of Education. The system, though, is flawed. As noted by the political scientist, Daniel Altschuler, the ruling parties tend to replace teachers with party activists and give positions in the schools just to their followers, undermining the parent organisations' autonomy.
"There is a problem of political patronage taking over the programme," says Altschuler. "Most of the studies carried out by the donors community about PROHECO don't recognise that this is happening. The first important step is to identify the problem, to monitor it and then to work out a solution."
The Honduran government in recent years has launched several initiatives to improve the education system. Honduras spends 7.3 percent of its GDP on public education - more than any other Latin American country. Unfortunately though, greater investment has not resulted in higher education standards.
"When politics is involved in the education sector it ruins everything," comments Lopez. "Last year the government promised a scholarship of 10,000 lempiras (525 dollars) for the poorest families, but in our school not one child received the money. This grant is given out only to the children of the followers of the ruling party."
The situation that exists within PROHECO schools and the ongoing endemic corruption doesn't leave much room for optimism, but there are some glimmers of hope emerging from some community-based initiatives. According to the research of Fernando Yitzack Pavon, Improving Educational Quality in Honduras, decentralisation programs are a key strategy to increasing enrolment, strengthening community participation and improving efficiency.
This is particularly true in the case of small-scale projects run by local cooperatives. Edith Villanueva is the social secretary of COMUCAP, a cooperative of women farmers who are fighting for the social, economic and political development of their communities.
"Since I was a child my dream was to study, but I couldn't because my parents were really poor," says Villanueva. "I felt this was a serious obstacle in my life."
Recognising that education is key to breaking the vicious cycle of poverty, COMUCAP is investing in education programs.
"Our cooperative produces Fair Trade coffee," explains Villanueva. "Each year we invest the Fair Trade premium in grants for the children of COMUCAP members. Education is a priority, because if these children can study, then they will be able to work with our organisation in the future."
Approximately 40 percent of the Honduran population is under the age of 14. With such a young society the hopes for change are high and the younger generation are increasingly more aware of the importance of getting an educational qualification.
The road to improve the education system in rural areas is still long. But long and bumpy roads are not something Juan and the Honduran youth are afraid of. They keep walking.