UNICEF Leads 'Back to School' Initiative in Cote d'Ivoire

  • by Thalif Deen (united nations)
  • Inter Press Service

But the political crisis triggered by a disputed presidential election has been followed by a spreading humanitarian crisis.

The Office of the U.N. Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says hundreds of thousands of civilians remain displaced more than two months after former president Laurent Gbagbo surrendered, ending a violent stalemate after he lost a U.N.-certified presidential run-off election to Alassane Ouattara last November.

According to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an estimated 142,000 Ivorian refugees remain in neighbouring Liberia while OCHA has been providing food and medical supplies to over 100,000 households.

Of all the vulnerable groups in the country, the most affected are nearly a million children, most of whom either stay home or have returned to schools looted or destroyed during the fighting.

The U.N. Children's agency UNICEF and the U.S.-based non-governmental organisation Save the Children have been actively involved in a 'Back to School' initiative with support from the Ministry of Education.

Dr. Jordan Naidoo, a senior education advisor at UNICEF, told IPS the educational system in Cote d'Ivoire has been severely affected since the contested presidential election results late last year.

Although schools were scheduled to reopen on Jan.3, a call for civil disobedience by the pro-Ouattara coalition caused schools in the Center, North and West (CNO) areas to remain closed.

And as a result, she pointed out, at least 800,000 children missed out on four to six months of school.

In addition, schools in Abidjan shut down when violent fighting erupted between military forces in the economic capital at the end of March.

'All in all, UNICEF estimates that one million children have had their education severely disrupted due to the post-electoral crisis,' said Naidoo.

Still, it is encouraging to see that 85 percent of children are back in the classroom in the last two months across the country, she said.

'But, we cannot forget that 250,000 have not gone back and that another one million (have never been to school). Our mission at the moment is to ensure that each and every child goes back to school. After all, it is their right,' she added.

Guy Cave, country director for Save the Children in Cote d'Ivoire, says education is a right of all children and is essential to their development.

One million children were already out of school before the crisis, and of those who had the chance to go to school, many were unable to complete even their basic education, he said.

And hundreds of thousands of additional children were then forced out of school for several months, Cave added.

Asked about the status of teachers, infrastructure, and school supplies in Cote d'Ivoire, Naidoo told IPS that many teachers fled the violence and are missing in classrooms where they are desperately needed.

Buildings were damaged in armed violence and supplies were lost, looted or destroyed during the months of conflict, she said.

UNICEF recently registered 224 attacks against schools in the country, including 180 schools that were looted, 23 schools occupied by military forces, and 20 schools touched by mortar shells.

'There is an urgent need for investments in infrastructure, school furniture, and provision of teaching and learning materials,' Naidoo said.

She said student-teacher ratios in Cote d'Ivoire, as in many developing countries, are very skewed. School infrastructure is also limited.

Just 16.9 percent of schools in the CNO area have the required number of desks in classrooms. Only 21.5 percent of schools in the CNO areas have at least one latrine which works. And most schools also lack potable and non-potable water.

She said emergencies often provide opportunities to build back better and UNICEF will work with partners to improve access and quality of education for all children, by ensuring that learning environments are safe, protective, and conducive to learning.

Asked how UNICEF plans to achieve its objective of helping displaced children back to school, Naidoo said UNICEF is leading inter-agency efforts to assess the needs of Ivorian refugees in the Liberian border communities as well as support educational planning in both countries.

'We have also conducted an assessment of the effectiveness of school reopening that targeted all public primary schools in the country,' she said.

UNICEF with its partners is also engaged in several other initiatives to achieve this objective.

'We have been taking the lead along with Save the Children to facilitate coordination among humanitarian stakeholders intervening in the education sector,' Naidoo said.

Last week, UNICEF and the Ministry of Education organised a workshop to launch the 'Back to School' initiative, which targets one million children through a four-tiered strategy that engages communities through social mobilisation efforts, improving learning environments by the provision of teaching and learning materials and infrastructure repairs, teacher training on psychosocial support, and institutional support to the ministry.

'Also during the past few months, we have been setting up temporary learning spaces and equipping them with School in a Box, recreation and early childhood development kits in sites in the West and in Abidjan,' Naidoo said.

Today, she said, over 13,000 children aged 3-18 participate in daily education and recreation activities within sites for internally displaced people. Some 26,000 others have been integrated into formal schools in host communities.

UNICEF is also advocating for the school feeding programmes to resume immediately, as this supports student learning and incentivises school attendance and improves learning achievements.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service