When people ask me about the challenges of working with the marginalised, the biggest issue I harp on about is their families. Getting an uneducated family to see the value in education can be extremely taxing. This happens most often in our sewing program. The first challenge to overcome is actually getting the families to allow the students to study. I have lost track of the number of times that a lady has said, “Yes, I want to study, but I have to ask my husband”. Most of the time the husband says no, and that is the end of that short journey. Or for the younger students, “I really want to study as I stopped at public school, but my mother wants me to work and won’t let me study”. Or, “I have always wanted to learn this skill, but no one will look after my baby while I study”.

The second challenge to overcome is keeping them in the program when are able to get them to study. Around half of the students end up dropping out for various reasons. “I have to move to Thailand”, “My parents-in-law said education is stupid”, “My mother doesn’t understand why I want to study for a year”, and so it goes. Despite having intelligent local staff who come from poverty themselves, no amount of talking can get those students to remain in the program. If their families don’t support them, they don’t have a chance. What happens to them once they drop out of the program? Generally they work as builders, move to Thailand or stay at home, thus remaining in poverty.

It costs $1,000AUD to put a villager through our sewing program. I don’t need to tell you that it’s a lot of money. With that money we could provide preschool education to TEN five-year olds for a year. However, it is an investment in these villagers, one we hope will pay off with a combined commitment from them and our staff. What we (or really, me, since I am responsible for fundraising) don’t like is wasting money. If a student drops out after just one month we have already wasted around $80, and there is no way they can earn money with a sewing skill after just one month of training, hence it is a lost investment. We are an NGO, we don’t gamble with those risks, so it really hits us hard. That’s why we have decided to change the way we do things. This time around, we have changed the sewing program so that instead of studying for a year, our new students study for eight months. This results in a lower amount of time for them to commit to the program, which we thought would increase the likelihood of their families allowing them to study (it didn’t, but at least we started the new term with six students). After they finish studying for eight months, they will go out into their world and try and earn an income. After four months, we will assess whether they are committed to using their skill, and if they are, we will bring them back for our expert level sewing class, a very costly one due to the materials involved.

Additionally, a big change for the program is the contract. From now on, if a student drops out, they have to pay 50% of what we have invested in them up to the time they dropped out. We don’t want their money, but it is a deterrent so that we get the most committed villagers to join our program and STAY in our program. Those who sign the contract are already much more committed than those who look at it and think, “nah”.

I am unsure whether these new methods will work with retaining our students, however as I always tell my team when they feel disheartened, we can’t give up. There are still hundreds of villagers out there with the potential to use this skill to move their families out of poverty, and we have to find them and empower them to do so.