60,000 teachers on strike in Colombia to demand education reform

Bogota's Plaza de Bolivar filling up with teachers on strike demanding that the government fulfills on promises to reform the public education system. (The Bogota Post/Twitter)

Sixty thousand public school teachers gathered on the streets of the Colombian capital on Tuesday to demand reforms in an education system plagued by poor funding and inequitable access.

By some accounts, two out every ten children living in rural Colombia never attend school while half of those who gain access to education do not get beyond primary level (five years of education). With little education and scarce or non-existent job opportunities, many of these youth remain particularly susceptible to recruitment by armed groups or the illegal drug economy.

Many believe reducing inequities in education and improving livelihoods in rural communities will be critical to breaking Colombia’s historical cycle of violence and civil war, which was recently resolved in a peace deal.

The teachers have been on strike for almost a month, halting classes for 8 million students in an effort to demand higher teacher salaries, a reduction in the student-teacher ratio, and improvement in school meals, among other reforms.

The president of the teachers union (the Colombian Educators Union, or Fecode), vented his anger at the government for failing to adequately invest in teachers’ needs.

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“The negotiations with the Ministry of Education have stagnated on the economic front, due to the attitude of the government that is summarized in a sentence: There is no money,” Carlos Rivas said, as reported in El Espectador.

Colombia’s teachers “are dying” because the government does not guarantee them access to decent health services, he said.

President Juan Manual Santos’ administration has offered a bonus of 15 percent that will only be available to the longest-serving teachers. According to Caracol Radio, the leader on Tuesday also reiterated a claim he made several weeks ago that the government simply did not have the resources to fulfill the education reforms previously promised.

“The Government has presented to them with full generosity, but also with full responsibility for our public treasury, fiscal responsibility, the proposals, and we have already reached the end of negotiations. I hope to reach an agreement on the wage increase and other issues on the agenda,” Santos said.

The Colombian government is currently tasked with implementing the December 2016 peace accord signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which put an end to more than five decades of armed conflict. Research shows the violence has reinforced economic inequalities between urban and rural areas, with the latter experiencing higher rates of poverty, marginalization, absent or dysfunctional public services, and lack of access to quality education.

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Colombia has made an important effort to improve education, investing 4.6 percent of annual GDP into the sector in recent years. But critics point out that only 0.5 percent goes to rural areas, and push for an increase to 1.2 percent of GDP per year over the next 15 years in rural education if the system is to see any substantive changes.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com