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Truancy Troubles
How Much Education Does A Fisherman Need?

In towns where fishing is the main occupation, students often drop out of school around 13. After all, why do they need an education when they already have a job?

10.10.2016  |  
Fishermen on the beach near Chillaw: How long did they stay at school?

Sevan is one among many. “With the money I earn from picking fish for the men in the boats I go and drink falooda [a sweet milky drink] with my friends and play cricket with them,” says the 11-year-old Tamil boy, who studies in the Sinhalese language at his local primary school in the village of Suthuwela.

And he is one of many little boys living in and around the coastal town of Chilaw in Sri Lanka’s north west.  Like his friends, Sevan helps sorting the fish out of the full nets that fishermen bring in. His father is a fisherman, his mother buys and dries the fish and once he’s a little older, Sevan will eventually be expected to go to sea too. Fish, coconut and related products are the primary industry in this town. Because of this Sevan’s parents don’t think he needs a lot more education. How much schooling do you need to catch fish? they ask.

“It’s not necessary for him to go to school that much,” Sevan’s mother, Kumuthini, says. “His grandfather has a boat and when he grows up he will go fishing in that boat.”

A lot of parents around the coast have a similar mindset. They prepare their children to earn a sustainable living when fishing and they don’t think school is really needed. Often once a child turns 13, they will leave school.


/Chilaw 2


The local school, St Sebastian’s, reports that over the past four years they have had 60 male and 30 female drop outs. Most of those leaving school early are in the 8th, 9th and 10th grades – that is from the ages of 11 onwards.

“If we do not go to school for several days, then we may be visited by the police,” Sevan tells. “That’s why we keep going to school, but only on and off.”

A number of actors are involved in preventing truancy in Sri Lanka, including school administrators, the local council and the police. The police go out with a list of absentees provided by the school and visit the homes of truants, who are advised to attend lessons the next day. But this tends to take place only once every few months.

“But even then we have not been able to prevent drop outs,” principal says. “Only about 10 percent of the students come here to learn. The rest only come because of pressure from the police and authorities.”

Religion is another reason why children here do not attend school. For example, if a religious occasion coincides with an exam, the children will ignore the exam and go to prayers – even if the exam is an important one.

Seasonal migration is also an issue. Some of the fishermen’s families move to different places, when there are more or less fish in certain areas. As a result, a pupil might only attend school for six months of the year.

Young women have an even tougher time. “If it is arranged that a girl marry a fisherman, then she had better know how to dry fish,” says another local parent. “If she can only hold a pen and write, then there will be problems.”

Often the girls will drop out of school even earlier. They are expected to look after younger siblings from around the age of six or seven while their parents work. During that time, they are also taught the various stages involved in drying fish – only women do this job and women also tend to be the primary sellers of dried fish. After this, girls are usually expected to marry, often in arranged marriages, around the age of 18.

“Highly educated teachers only earn around LKR20,000 [around EUR120] a month,” Sevan’s mother, Kumuthini, points out. “Whereas my husband can earn over LKR30,000 in a day. It is enough for us that my son can read and write. What more would we want?”


/Chilaw 3