PBS Premiere: July 19, 2011Check the broadcast schedule »

In Context

There is a marked contrast between education standards in urban areas of Colombia and education standards in rural areas of Colombia. While nine years of education are officially compulsory, only five years of primary school are offered in some rural areas.

In cities, the literacy rate is 93 percent; in the country, it's 67 percent. Overall, about 80 percent of Colombian children enter school, and the ministry of education estimates that approximately 500,000 children are currently out of school altogether.

One of the primary reasons parents do not send children to school is financial hardship. Officially, the Colombian constitution guarantees free education but stipulates that the right is "without prejudice to charges for the cost of academic rights for those who can afford them." In other words, some fees are permissible, and may be mandatory, including matriculation fees as well as fees for mandatory uniforms (common in South America), books, paper, water, administrative costs or other supplies. Matriculation fees may be as minimal as $4 to $40 a year per student, and total costs (including matriculation, uniforms and school supplies) as low as $100 per year, but these numbers can be prohibitive in a country where the annual per capita income is $8,205.

One of the most underserved groups consists of the children of displaced families who have fled or been pushed out of their homes as a result of ongoing violence in Colombia. As of 2007, two million people were listed on Colombia's national register for displaced people; at least one million more are estimated to have been uprooted by violence as a result of the internal armed conflict. About half of them are under the age of 18. In 2002, an analysis by Colombia's ministry of education in 21 receiving communities found that only 10,700 of the 122,200 displaced school-age children (fewer than 9 percent) were matriculated. In the same communities, the enrollment rate for all children was 92.7 percent.

In another study, the ministry found that 52 percent of displaced children between the ages of 12 and 18 were not in school, compared to 25 percent of the same age group in the population at large. For displaced families the financial burdens of sending a child to school may exceed means. One survey of displaced women found that more than a quarter of those between the ages of 13 and 24 had left because of an inability to pay. Also, since education expenditures in Colombia are equal to only 3.9 percent of the country's gross domestic product, schools are often cash-strapped and cannot always accommodate the children of displaced persons, although officially they are required by law to do so. Other times, costs or logistics of providing transportation to school (which may not be near students' homes) can inhibit matriculation.

While poor displaced families are legally exempt from paying school fees, free schooling is available only to children whose parents have registered as displaced. Many parents cannot register, because state agencies often refuse to register people as displaced if they say paramilitary successor groups forced them to flee. This contributes to disparities between government and non-governmental organization estimates of Colombia's internally displaced population.

Despite armed conflict and low matriculation rates in many regions, there are important civic and government initiatives taking place in Colombia that are tackling literacy and education. In 1998, the mayor of Bogotá, Colombia's capital, began Biblored, a network of 19 libraries that serve some of the city's poorest neighborhoods and provide free access to books, computers and technology. Thousands of people use Biblored's services regularly, and in 2002 the network received the Access to Learning Award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- a $1 million grant to expand its operations. Several other Colombian organizations have followed suit, including The Plan Nacional de Lectura y Bibliotecas (PLNB) which receives financial support from both the country's ministry of culture and its ministry of education to promote public libraries and the expansion of book production. Since 2002, the organization has benefited 843 of the nation's 1,119 municipalities by providing books and supplies for the development of libraries.

Photo Caption: Luis Soriano reads to children
Credit: Andrés Sarria

» Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadistica. "Province Census."
» Foreign Consultants, Inc. "Education System of Columbia."
» Glenne, Jonathan. "Land Grabs Have Dominated Colombia's History." The Guardian, January 31, 2011.
» Human Rights Watch. "Colombia: Displaced and Discarded."
» Human Rights Watch. "World Report 2011: Colombia."
» U.N. Refugee Agency. "Education for Displaced Children."
» U.S. Department of State. "Background Note: Colombia."