In recent years, Panama has made significant progress in advancing their public education system. As of 2013, rates of literacy and primary school net enrollment for youth ages 15-24 were over 97 percent. The country — like many others in the Central American region — has worked towards elevating basic human rights for its people; these efforts include taking seriously the task of accomplishing U.N. Millennium Development Goals of providing universal primary education and promoting gender equality.
The state of girls’ education in Panama has improved to the level that recently, non-indigenous Panamanian women have been able to achieve high levels of education. Recent statistics reveal that women outnumber men at the university level 60 percent to 40 percent, and now average 12.1 years of schooling compared to the 10.5 years of schooling for men.
Barriers to Accessing Education
Inspiring though the statistics may be, women still face many obstacles to their education and empowerment. The data displays that the significant enrollment numbers of women in higher education might not necessarily translate to educational gender equality. Enrollment statistics at Panama’s five public universities reveal a trend that centers of higher education may benefit male students more than they do females.
It’s true that women comprise the majority of students at three out of the five universities in the country; however, men outnumber women at the two universities that offer more prestigious careers with higher salaries. For example, there is a clear majority of males studying in the areas of computer science (62 percent) and engineering (75 percent), whereas the majority of females study in the areas of education (15.1 percent) and business and management (28.1 percent).
Another important factor to consider when probing the equality of public education in Panama is the elevated rate of teen pregnancy. The Latin American/Caribbean region has the second-highest teen pregnancy rate worldwide, with the highest numbers found in Central America, particularly in Panama. A 2018 report by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), UNICEF and the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) revealed that in Panama, 15 percent of all pregnancies were undergone by girls below the age of 20.
Teen pregnancy, in its significantly high numbers, hinders the accessibility of girls’ education in Panama as many young women are forced to quit school in order to care for their children. The report also stated that girls with only a primary education or no education at all were four times more likely to get pregnant than girls with secondary schooling. This reality is disturbing, as 26.1 percent of females drop out of school between their primary (ages 6-11) and secondary (ages 12-17) school years according to a 2013 UNICEF statistic. By the time females enter secondary school age, only 71.3 percent are enrolled in school.
Impact of Location
Access to education proves to be an even greater difficulty for girls who live in rural and/or indigenous communities. Between the primarily non-indigenous, urban communities and the indigenous, rural communities there are noticeable disparities. Many rural areas lack access to pre-primary school (ages 4-5) and often must make do without potable water or electricity in their educational facilities.
In these lesser-developed communities, girls struggle to find time for an education while under the strain of poverty. In the more remote areas of the country, if girls manage to attend school they are likely to attend for only 4-6 years compared to males who on average attend 8-9 years. In 2005, UNICEF reported that 45 percent of indigenous children were not enrolled in school at all.
Few for Change’s Mission
Recognizing the unique educational barriers beset upon girls’ education in Panama, Few for Change, a volunteer-operated nonprofit organization, has made it a critical part of their mission to improve educational opportunities for girls living in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé region. In the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé, 10-19 year-olds accounted for one-third of all pregnancies in the area, registering the region among the three Panamanian provinces with the highest rates of teen pregnancy.
The indigenous Ngäbe-Buglé people have endured a long history of displacement by Panamanian settlers, and this occurrence has lead to chronic poverty and cultural isolation. The Ngäbe live in a remote, mountainous region which makes communication to the government and mainstream Panamanian society difficult.
Often, students in the region must travel to a different state to receive a secondary education. Travel and boarding expenses create substantial financial burdens on students’ families. The Few for Change group attempts to combat these difficulties by awarding scholarships, educational resources and community support to high-achieving students. Through these methods, they hope to empower motivated youth and break the cycle of poverty.
The main goal of this mission is also to give girls the power to decide when and how to start their families. Higher levels of education are shown time and again to reduce rates of teenage pregnancy. By providing female students with resources and support, Few for Change hopes to foster girls’ education in Panama and keep girls in school so that they have more autonomy and choice in their adult lives.
Panama has made remarkable strides towards achieving universal primary education and gender equality; but with institutional bias still favoring males, remarkably high teen pregnancy rates and indigenous communities that cry out for more educational resources, there remains much work to be done.
– Clarke Hallum