Twin sisters struggle to bring education to Indonesian slums

Posted: Wednesday, February 25, 2004

JAKARTA, Indonesia Their school has a highway overpass for a roof and a garbage dump behind the blackboard. The classroom often floods, leaving students ankle-deep in filthy water.

But the kids shrug off the distractions. They know that the alternative having to beg or to work in factories is much worse.

''It's fun going to school,'' said Asa, a smiling 5-year-old. As trucks rumbled overhead, her class broke into song: ''Sebelum kita makan, yok! Cuci tanganmu dulu, yok!'' (Before we eat, c'mon! Let's wash our hands, c'mon!)

Having dutifully washed their hands in a bucket of water, the children were then given milk and a snack free of charge, like their pencils, books and uniforms.

This is one of the five Kartini Emergency Schools scattered around Jakarta's slums. Financed and run by 54-year-old twin sisters Sri Rosyanti and Sri Irianti, they are giving 1,600 children ages 5 to 17 the basic education their government has failed to provide.

But even though the sisters have been hailed as heroines, the slum school may not last. City hall wants to raze the slum and says the school is on government land.

''The squatters are not our problem,'' said Muhayat, a Jakarta city spokesman, who like many Indonesians uses one name.

The struggle reflects Indonesia's continuing problems with educating its 76 million children. Although more than 90 percent of 7- to 12-year-old kids attend primary school, according to official figures, nearly half drop out by age 13. Anyway, critics say, the quality of instruction is doubtful.

Many parents say they can't afford school fees of $2 a day, or need their children to work.

They can expect little help from the government.

Although President Megawati Sukarnoputri depends politically on the votes of the urban poor, critics say her administration has done little to help them.

Indonesia still spends less than 5 percent of its national budget on education, the least in Southeast Asia, aid organizations say.

The problem has reached a critical stage, said a local aid organization, the Urban Poor Consortium.

''People have nowhere to turn. Not investing in children's education is a mistake that we will pay for in years to come,'' said spokesperson Ari Ujiyanto.

Millions of parents depend on schools run by charities or send their children to the thousands of pesantrens Islamic boarding schools.

This dependence on Islamic schools, some of which teach anti-Western curriculums, caused concern after the 2002 terror bombings on the island of Bali that killed 202 people. Some of the convicted bombers went to pesantrens.

The Kartini Schools, though not religious, also give religious instructions as part of the secular national program, along with reading, writing and arithmetic.

''We had to do something,'' said Rosyanti, a teacher. ''Our dream is that these kids have some education to improve their lives. We couldn't sit still and wait for the government to help them.''

She and her psychologist sister serve as teachers, principals and administrators. Each month, they spend 20 million rupees (U.S. $2,400) of their own money to fund the schools and feed the children.

Both have met Megawati to receive government awards.

But they said she showed no interest in their work. They also said authorities refused to give them additional teachers or plots to build permanent schools. All the makeshift schools received eviction notices to clear out by the end of April.

''It is tough. And I get more tired every day, but these kids pull me through,'' said Irianti.

Asa's mother, Sri Rizki, left her village eight years ago when she was 14 to become a housemaid for a wealthy Jakarta family.

At 16 she married Rizki, who labors on building sites when he can get work. It's a struggle to meet the $20 monthly cost of food and rent for a shack under the bridge.

''I don't want Asa to end up like me no schooling and no skills,'' Sri said. ''I want Asa to have a better life.''

Majidah, an 80-year-old wo-man, accompanied her great-grandchild Leila to the school.

''I want Leila to get out of this nightmare. I gave birth to 15 kids. Ten died but five survived. My children have worked here all their lives. They deserve help from the government,'' she said.

''This school may be Leila's only hope,'' Majidah said. ''I thank God every day that it is here.''

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