Panama, a Central American country of 4 million people, is about the size of South Carolina. Poverty is common, with unemployment rates ranging from 6-11%, and a GDP per capita just over 13,000 dollars. It is estimated that 18% of Panamanians live on less than $2 a day. The pregnancy rate for women ages 15-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean is the second highest in the world (46 per 1,000 girls, behind 66 per 1,000 in sub-Saharan Africa, according to an UNICEF report).
Education is a tool that could be used to break the cycle of poverty. Unfortunately, the quality of education in Panama is one of the “worst in the world”. Out of 139 countries, Panama is ranked as 102nd in primary education, 90th in higher education, and 112th in math and science education. Aside from the poor quality, many students do not complete their education. School after age 15 is optional, and discontinuing school is common. Attendance rates are 75% for secondary school (ages 12-17), and only 38% for college (World Economic Forum). In the end, only 24% of students actually graduate from tertiary school, nation-wide (UNESCO).
These statistics do not capture how poor the education and poverty is in the “interior” (hours away from the city). In areas like El Valle, where Advance Panama is based, poverty and rurality is a barrier that further prevents students from bettering their lives. With about a third of the population living in rural areas, there are many challenges to overcoming poverty. These areas are underdeveloped, and the schools are much lower quality than the national averages. Many students have to walk on long, dangerous paths to get to school. During the rainy season, these walks are even more dangerous, as some have to cross rivers to get to school. UNICEF notes that 45% of indigenous children in Panama were not enrolled in school because they couldn’t get there. The high school from which our students come does not teach any math or science classes, putting them at a severe disadvantage, and many students struggle with passing the required university entrance exams and succeeding in math and science courses at the university level. Many children also come from homes with one parent, as alcoholism is a major issue. Access to gas and electricity vary throughout rural regions, and access to internet is scarce. None of our students have internet in their homes.
With this environment, students who persevere and graduate from school are still left to struggle with the mentality of poverty. With scarce role models to encourage students to dream of a different life, the cycle of poverty continues. Even after overcoming barriers to attend school, students are unprepared and unable to pass entrance exams to get into university. If students are able to get into university, poverty still poses a challenge: the cost of housing (or the income loss of the family), the cost of books and transportation to school, and the stress of being a student, compounds and makes obtaining a degree so much more difficult. It is estimated that less than 4% of rural Panamanian youth earn college degrees. With your help, you can change Panama. By earning a university degree, our students can rise above subsistence level living.