Not everyone is equally extremely poor

We had just wrapped up a photoshoot for the ceremony introducing the injected polio vaccination into the routine vaccinations for the children in Guinea. Ebola was in major decline and the last contacts were just days away from passing their 21-day Ebola monitoring period. Schools were set to open in three days.

After almost two years of setbacks due to the outbreak and the many side effects of Ebola, this was one of those moments where I could really feel the progress for the most vulnerable in Guinea.

While we packed up our equipment and discussed the details of the next project, we were approached by young two boys. You could hear them coming: the signature metal clanging of their shoeshine tools serves as an advertisement for their services. They quickly descended upon the shoes of those gathered using various liquids and techniques depending on the shoes.

As they worked, I asked them if they were looking forward to going back to school—even though I already knew the answer. My question had to be translated into Sousou because they didn’t speak French.

“We aren’t going to school,” they said. “We cannot afford to.” They collected 500 Guinean Francs or 7 U.S. cents from each customer and continued on their beat.

Sometimes it is easy to forget that there are inequalities even within extreme poverty.

One of the greatest equalizers is knowledge. In Guinea, one out of three school aged children are not in school. Almost one-third of those not attending school work in labor intensive or dangerous jobs in mining, agriculture, trade-crafts, domestic work, and other trades. The money that they earn oftentimes supports the child themselves, but also their parents and then factors into the decision of parents on whether or not to send their children to school.

While school fees may not seem that high, on average about 60 USD per child per year, and less when the schools and children receive the support of UNICEF or other partners – imagine a parent who has seven children to put through school. In many cases, there is no way that all of the children, if any, will go to school. Additionally, when including the loss of the income that a child out of school would earn, the opportunity costs of sending a child to school can reach almost 300 USD per year. I remember one father telling me, “I could only afford to send six of my children to the regular school. The rest will go to the Koranic school.”

I did some quick math in my head. I figured that at 7 cents per customer, forgetting all other expenses – including supplies, transport, food, support to other family members, etc., these boys would have to shine 1,714 shoes to afford school for one year.

The challenges for girls are even greater. Their place in the family and society, female genital mutilation and cutting victimizing almost 97 per cent, early marriage and pregnancy all stand in the way of their education.

There is hope. Progress is here and every day children’s lives are improving. There are some 300 new schools in Guinea. Many have new water points and separate latrines for both girls and boys – formerly a major deterrent for girls going to school. UNICEF provides notebooks, pencils, backpacks, desks and other equipment which helps reduce the costs of schooling for parents with a particular focus on rural and poor communities in an attempt to restore some equality to the lives of children in Guinea. We have implemented many successful programmes – complex and elegant community based solutions for the retention of girls and boys.

But the fact remains that even if every single child could afford to go to school in Guinea, there wouldn’t be enough teachers. In some schools, classrooms remain closed all year for this reason. UNICEF can only supply school materials in 76 out of 400 sub-prefectures, meaning that the parents of girls and boys in the remaining sub-prefectures must contribute for the materials, in addition to other expenses such desks in schools not yet equipped by the Government or other partners.

And while this school year these two boys and thousands like them shining shoes in the hot sun or working at home, in the mines or fields while their friends or siblings learn the lessons that will give them a better life, we are working to ensure that they do not fall through the cracks.

UNICEF attempts to restore equality by providing children who missed out on their education alternative and accelerated schooling programmes. For example, in Telimele, a rural prefecture, three schools offered primary education to about 80 children like the boys I met to catch them up on their studies.

The world will never be a completely fair place to live, but in Guinea UNICEF fights unfair for all children. And, as other aspects of life here improve, health, protection, sanitation, the fight becomes easier.

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