Thursday, 4 July 2013

Markus and his honai – The rough road to secondary education in Papua province

By Michael Klaus, UNICEF Indonesia

Markus left his village at the age of 14
to enroll in secondary school.
© UNICEF Indonesia/2013/Klaus
Megapura in Papua Province, Indonesia, July 2013 – It has been four years that Markus last saw his parents, and it will at least be another one until he may be able to go back home again to his village Kalbok - a 10-day walk away in the highlands of Papua province. The 18 year old is in 12th grade and he knows he would not be in school today had he stayed home. 

Markus has grown a lot during these four years, and he now is the leader of his honai in Megapura, a big traditional hut that serves as a boarding home for 50 adolescents and young adults. They all visit either a secondary school or a professional training institution in nearby Wamena, in the heart of Papua province in Indonesia’s Far East.

“The Highland districts in Papua have the worst child indicators of the whole country,” explains Margaret Sheehan, Chief of the UNICEF Field Office that covers both Papua and West Papua. More than 120 out of every 1,000 children die in their first five years of life, more than three times the national average. Only a third of the population has access to safe water and less than one in four can use a latrine.

Half of all young people are married before reaching 18 years of age, and secondary school attendance stands at only 54 per cent, much below even the rest of the Province of Papua. “We increasingly focus on adolescents in our work,” says Margaret Sheehan. “And wherever possible, we aim to involve young people like Markus directly in the development of programmes.”

Leaving their native villages remains the only option for most adolescents in this poor mountainous region to get into secondary school. In their new homes like the one in Megapura, the ethnic groups often stay together and share one common honai. Leaders like Markus, who has been elected by the group, play a key role in transmitting the traditional values of their villages and ethnic groups, establishing and enforcing rules, ensuring that sick members see a doctor, and negotiating with other honais, in case of conflicts.

“We hardly ever have problems with our neighbors in the other honais,” Markus says. “And if that happens, it usually has to do with money that needs to be paid back.” Life is hard in these boarding homes. There are no latrines and the young people use the nearby river for their personal hygiene. The older boys work as rickshaw drivers in Wamena. “They earn the money for our food,” Markus explains. “We eat once a day, in the evening. Whoever comes late, has to wait until the next evening. That helps, usually all are here on time.”

The NGO Yasumat, which stands for “Social Foundation for Isolated People”, supports the young people by providing health education and running discussion groups on life choices and HIV in the boarding homes. 

Markus and his housemates posing outside their honai.
© UNICEF Indonesia / 2013 / Klaus

Talking about reproductive health and safe sex is not easy in this very conservative region, but nonetheless it is more than necessary. Unlike the rest of the country, HIV has become a generalized epidemic in Papua and West Papua, having spread beyond high-risk groups, and young people are particularly affected. The prevalence among 15 to 24 year olds stands at 3 per cent. Less than 10 per cent of those aged 10 to 18 years have a comprehensive knowledge of HIV transmission.

The risk of an HIV infection is only one of the many problems children and adolescents in this region have to live with. In 2012, when UNICEF and the Provincial Governments conducted an Assessment of Youth Policies and Programmes in Papua and West Papua, young people were invited to speak about the many challenges they are facing in the areas of health, education, employment and protection.

Based on the findings of the study and responding to UNICEF advocacy, the government in West Papua, at a high level event in the provincial capital Manokwari on 25 June committed itself to develop a comprehensive youth policy – the first of its kind in Indonesia. 

“The West Papua Government is leading the way towards a coordinated and comprehensive approach for young people, said UNICEF Representative Angela Kearney during the event. “Young people need to be involved when it comes to developing the details of this policy. We at UNICEF stand ready to also assist Papua province and other provinces in following suit and develop their own youth policy.”