A member the Banwaon ethnic group, Liling belongs to what is known in the Philippines as a “Lumad”, or indigenous community, settled in the remote hills of Mindanao, the southernmost region of the country. The area has been bloodied by conflict for decades, with multiple armed and paramilitary groups operating in the area - some politically motivated, others working for larger interests such as mining companies – along with a large army presence. More often than not, the fighting results in displacement of civilians: in the last four years alone, close to half a million people have been displaced across the region. Liling’s community had to wait 14 months before it was safe enough to head back to the village. During that period, they stayed in an abandoned hospital, with dire sanitary conditions and very little food on which to survive. Five children died, and many fell ill.
When asked why communities choose to stay in such an isolated place despite the hardships and the ongoing conflict, the village chief Dongkoi explains, "life here is hard, but it is our land, and that is all that we possess." Home to some 20 families, the village of Kihinggay is a day’s walk from the nearest market, and devoid of any government services. Surrounding villages, all from the same ethnic group, face the same fate. This means the entire community’s children do not have access to the formal education system, but thanks to a partnership with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the European Commission is funding a local NGO which brings informal schooling to primary school-aged children.
Funded as part of the European Union Humanitarian Aid (ECHO) worldwide effort to bring education to children who are victims of conflict, the project includes the rehabilitation of NGO school premises which have been damaged by fighting or stand dilapidated, the provision of school supplies, as well as nutritional and livelihood support to ensure the children are physically and mentally fit to attend classes. Contingency plans are also put in place to ensure continuity of education services in times of emergency – particularly in case of displacement. "This is crucial, as apart from ensuring children’s studies are not suddenly interrupted for months, it also helps to maintain a sense of safety and normalcy for kids who are faced with very stressful situations," explains Michael, one of the teachers in the Kihinggay school. Last year, due to their being displaced, the children couldn’t finish the school year; they couldn’t graduate and had to repeat to the same levels, as if they had failed.
Overall, the EU funded project benefits close to 15 000 primary school-aged children across five provinces of Mindanao. Teachers from the NGO schools enrolled in the program also receive additional training on a variety of topics, including psychosocial support, and advocacy initiatives are undertaken with the government regarding the need for the formal education system to reach out to Lumad children.
Back in Kihinggay, the community is hugely supportive of the initiative. "We are poor farmers, we live a day to day life," explains Albert Ambason, who has three children attending the school. "This education is the one and only thing I can offer to my kids, so it is very important for me." In a context where indigenous people are often looked down upon by other parts of society, many also see the school as a source of hope, the village chief Dingkoi says optimistically, "this school is the only chance for our children to be able to defend their rights in the future, and their ancestral land."