Free education is not free. Though in principle all children in Trinidad and Tobago have access to free schooling, not all of them can afford to take up the offer. Government already provides free textbooks, breakfast, lunch, and tuition, you might note, and it is up to parents to provide the other necessities for attending school. Yet, it’s not always easy for parents to do so. As a parent myself I can tell you the cost of outfitting a child for school is high, even with all the above provided free. Each child has to have a book bag, for one. Textbooks might be free but stationery isn’t, and you might cast your own mind back to your days in uniform to remember what it was like to forget a copybook at home, or to not have a copybook at all. Even apart from other things like uniforms and shoes, there are also personal hygiene requirements like deodorant, soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush, without which a child would be embarrassed to sit in class or might even be put out of class in some situations.
Recognising this, a group of young people has sought to help some Caribbean children seize free education. Melissa Enmore and Michelle Kandasammy have come up with The Backpack Project, a non-profit that aims to provide assistance to needy children by giving them a backpack full of stationery and personal care supplies once a year.
“The Backpack Project believes that education is a basic human right, not a privilege, and that health is a key factor determining the success of a child’s development,” the Project says in its Mission Statement. “The organisation will encourage the pursuit of formal education amongst underprivileged children in the Caribbean by providing basic school supplies and foster a healthy learning environment by providing personal supplies to backpack recipients. The Backpack Project hopes to leverage the resources of its sponsors, donors, volunteers and other stakeholders in a collaborative manner to further its objective of universal childhood education in the Caribbean.”
I find it personally heartening that the Project has not only been able to do its work in Guyana (where Enmore and Kandasammy are from) and Trinidad (where Kandasammy lives), but also extend it to Haiti and the Philippines in two special programmes. The Project sends filled backpacks to students, shipping them in a barrel where necessary. The students, aged five to 18, are identified by educators and through individual requests, and must agree to have their school careers tracked as long as they participate in the Project. So far the Project has given over 100 backpacks to Trinidadian and Guyanese students since it was formed. With the help of the public, they can give more.
The Backpack Project is in the middle of a collection drive, which ends August 18. Members of the public can give either cash or kind: sponsor a filled backpack, which costs about $515, or donate the items needed to fill one. (Cash donors can also give part of the cost of a filled backpack.) The Project still needs for this year: 60 pens, 40 pencil cases, 24 drawing books, 25 bottles of shampoo, 25 bottles of conditioner, 60 notebooks, brown paper, 50 tubes of toothpaste, and 50 toothbrushes.
Kandasammy said in the organisation’s December 2011 newsletter, “Nothing quite prepares you for the joy on the children’s faces when they see the bags with their names on [them]. The warm unexpected hugs received from the students of Rose Hill RC took me by surprise. After briefly talking to the students about their classes and their goals for the year… I walked out of Rose Hill RC more determined than ever that we must fulfil our promise to continue to sponsor all of our kids and to expand our programme.”
In this region so fraught with inequity, poverty and poor governance, it is easy to throw one’s hands up and surrender to the apathy of selfishness, doing for oneself and ignoring others’ problems. It is much harder to engage with those problems, to sit and consider how one can actually make a difference in the world in which we live, and particularly the country we inhabit. It is refreshing to encounter people who try to change things for the better. The Backpack Project is one ogranisation of a group of young people who are doing just that. Join them.
To give to The Backpack Project, a registered not-for-profit company, go to: www.backpackproject.ca or email email@example.com. You can also call Michelle Kandasammy at 781-4034 or Karelle Clark at 497-4847.
[This appeared in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian as my column for July 10, 2012.]
There’s a debate raging on the Internet about the conflict between work and mothering. The debate itself certainly isn’t a new one, but in the last month it has coalesced around a long article published in July in the US magazine The Atlantic. In the article, headlined “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” its author Anne-Marie Slaughter examines the dilemma of powerful, educated women who struggle to balance their careers with the demands of parenting. Slaughter is a Princeton professor and former director of policy planning for the US State Department. She is also the mother of two adolescent boys. She writes about working long hours and keeping up a demanding travel schedule while trying to be a good parent:
“[T]he minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be […]. I realized what should have perhaps been obvious: having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had. The flip side is the harder truth: having it all was not possible in many types of jobs, including high government office—at least not for very long.”
She concedes that many other women who have less education, less powerful jobs, or less supportive partners (indeed, sometimes no partners) also have it hard, and questioned the feminist myth that women can “have it all”—ie, career and family at the same time. She adds that if this is to change there must be shifts in women’s access to positions of power, changes in the way we think about careers (do we really have to go to an office every day to advance in a career?), and changes to the structure of families so that more men play an active role in parenting.
It is the last part of the equation that I want to engage with here. When I worked as a newspaper reporter, covering night assignments, working weekends, I was generally too busy with work to spend time with my first daughter. Thank God I had the support of friends and relatives, but there were still too many evenings when my daughter was left in school until sunset because that was when I finished work. She suffered while my career thrived.
Women today take it for granted that they can be educated and have high-level jobs outside the home. These gains have been hard-won. (And there is still much to fight for: pay gaps between men and women persist and, as our recent Cabinet reshuffle has proven, just because there are educated, competent women available doesn’t mean that they will get put into those positions of power that exist.) However, I maintain that instead of giving women a choice between being working at home as wife and mother and being in the paid workforce, feminism has made it seem that women have an obligation to do both. As Slaughter points out, women who choose to do the former despite being equipped to do the latter are often looked at with scorn and condescension, as if they were inadequate or betraying the women’s movement. This has to change. Until there is a mass of men willing to wash dishes and wipe away tears, shuttle children to and from school and football practice, supervise homework and comb hair, working women will continue to do this double duty and they and their families will suffer for it. Of course women should be encouraged to work outside the home if they want to; but there must be a corresponding push for men to work within the home or we risk leaving our children without nurturing and support. Children must have parents. They need people who will see to their physical and emotional wellbeing, not from afar but right there in the home with them. Parenting by telephone cannot be a satisfactory alternative. Until there are enough men willing to do this “women’s work” of parenting, women will always have to choose.
Women must be involved in making and implementing policy at all levels, or we squander half our human resource and ignore the different solutions women might bring. But men have found out the hard way the cost of working 12-hour days: poor health, early death, and lack of engagement with their families. Asking women to blindly step into men’s shoes without changing these patterns is foolish and will ultimately benefit no one.
[This article was first published in the Trinidad Guardian on July 3, 2012. You can find it here.]