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Education - could do better in the east

Classroom in Eastern Province, July 2011 UNICEF
The decades-long conflict has ended in Sri Lanka, but the damage to the country's educational system lingers, particularly in the disaster-prone east, say families and experts.

Home to about 1.5 million people, Eastern Province is one of the hardest-hit areas in Sri Lanka by both natural and manmade disasters. Education advocates say schools lack teachers, funds, infrastructure - and attention.

"Education for us is like another war," said Nirmala Rani, 15, from Batticaloa District.

School facilities are scarce, while some classes do not even have teachers, the student said. "We really cannot call it an education," Rani said.

Raja Sreedharan, father of two secondary-school students from Ampara District, said: "There is no place for them to study. There are no proper teachers or books."


Conflict as well as natural disasters have displaced families and damaged schools, said Brenda Haiplik, education chief for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in the commercial capital, Colombo.

Floods this year alone have caused about US$12 million in damage to the education infrastructure, according to UNICEF.

"When emergencies happen, children miss out on learning for days, months and even years," Haiplik said.

In addition, there are teacher shortages, said Duminda Perera, head of the Community Livelihood Support Programme at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Sri Lanka.

Secondary schools in Eastern Province lack 222 mathematics teachers, 128 science teachers and 69 English teachers, according to 2010-2011 data from the Provincial Department of Education.

An additional 1,402 teachers are needed for electives, such as music, agriculture and health education, as well as to serve as counsellors and special education teachers.

At the primary level, Eastern Province schools are short of 465 English teachers and 104 general subject teachers.

The province had 385,115 primary and secondary-aged enrolled students in 2010, according to the government.

"Many people in the past did not want to go to the east at all due to unrest in the area, which is now fortunately becoming better," Perera said.

Government forces declared victory on 18 May 2009 over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland since 1983.

But logistical difficulties continue to discourage new teachers from working in rural areas, and most of the national budget goes to schools in cities, said Perera.


In the East's Trincomalee District, schools damaged or destroyed by conflict lack money to rebuild and train staff, said Haiplik.

Eastern Province is further along than Northern Province in rebuilding its education system, according to UNICEF, but receives less attention and donor funds than the north, said Deva Sivam, a 51-year-old teacher from Batticaloa District.

Northern Province, which suffered the bulk of fighting, loss and displacement and now faces severe teacher shortages, has been the focal point of humanitarian assistance as several international agencies shut their offices in the east in 2010.

Government funds are mainly used to pay teachers' and education officials' salaries; a minimal amount goes towards rehabilitating school buildings and providing teaching materials, said Haiplik.

UNICEF has supported school construction - including water and sanitation facilities, teacher housing, playgrounds and school furniture - damaged in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, by fighting and periodic flash floods, she added.

IOM has worked on rural schools with European Union funding.


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