JAKARTA (Reuters Life!) - In a country where an education is often out of reach for thousands of impoverished children, the Kartini Emergency School in Indonesia is proving to be an exception.
Amid the poverty and grime, 59-year-old twin sisters Sri Rossyati and Sri Irianingsih have opened the free school where their 550 students receive not only an education, but meals, a uniform, shoes, pencils and books, things that many children in Indonesia cannot afford or take for granted.
The school, a ramshackle collection of tables, chairs and whiteboards, is found by following the train line to the slums of Jakarta’s Kota district, where dogs pick at rubbish piles and emaciated laborers wait outside warehouses for work.
“For some of these kids, this is their only meal of the day. And if they can’t eat, they can’t learn,” says Sri Rossyati, whose students range in age from five to 18.
“They may be poor but they needn’t be ignorant.”
Officially, state schools are free in Indonesia, a nation of 226 million people where millions live on less than $2 a day.
However, many schools charge unofficial fees when government subsidies are not enough to cover the cost of operations.
“Parents also have to pay for shoes, writing materials and transport,” said Pujiawati, an education campaigner at Indonesian non-governmental organization, Voice of Concerned Mothers.
The cost means many can only afford the most basic schooling, while the standard of education is often poor, she added.
Official figures show that in 2007, 97 percent of children under 12 attended school, but only 54 percent under 18 did.
“Many children can read, but with great difficulty,” said Pujiawati, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.
The twins felt they could do something about the poor state of the education system using their own money. They have set up 76 schools across Indonesia, including in far-flung villages.
The Jakarta school costs the twins 20 million rupiah ($1,700) a month to run. First located under a bridge, it has been moved by the authorities five times but has found a permanent home in the railyards at Kota.
Some teachers are paid salaries, but others volunteer, such as Muhamad Anang, who got his education thanks to the twins.
“I graduated from this school and came back to teach and to show my appreciation. I was lucky to come to this school,” the 20-year-old said.
Others among the Kota school’s 2,000 graduates have gone on to find work as policemen, teachers, soldiers, doctors and chefs, said Sri Irianingsih.
Next to the school are the dilapidated homes of many of the students’ families, erected along the railway track and not far from a stinking canal.
Sri Marwanti, who lives in one of these homes, says that if it wasn’t for Kartini Emergency School, her four-year-old son would not get an education.
“The other schools have expensive books but at this school, they even give him milk so he can grow up strong,” she said.
Marhayati, 15, one of the students, agrees.
“I come here because I can’t pay to go to another school. And here, the food and materials are included,” she said.
“The twins just want us to succeed.”
Editing by Sara Webb and Miral Fahmy