"We, the children in Ivory Coast, want the war to stop now so that all the children in Ivory Coast can go back to school. It's our right!", says Awa, loudly and clearly into the radio and television microphones. At just 12 years of age, Awa is speaking for all children in Ivory Coast . . . and especially those who have been displaced by the nearly 5-month old Ivory Coast conflict. Awa and her family fled insecurity in their northern Ivory Coast village 4 months ago and are now displaced in Yamoussoukro. For the past 4 months, her life has been one of upheaval and uncertainty, but now she has finally found some of the stability and security that all children need: Awa is back in school where she can learn and play in safety with her new friends.
It is estimated that one million primary school-age children in Ivory Coast have had their schooling brutally interrupted since the Ivory Coast crisis began on 19 September 2002. Another 250,000 secondary school-age children face the same dilemma. The majority of these out of school children are young girls like Awa - girls who are already amongst the most vulnerable of any group in a time of crisis and conflict. UNICEF firmly believes that children who go to school are children who are less vulnerable and are better protected against violence, discrimination and abuse. UNICEF believes that children who go to school are less likely to be recruited to go to war. UNICEF also believes that education forms the basis on which a peaceful and tolerant society is built.
To that end, UNICEF helped launch a Back to School campaign on 13 February at the Ngokro School in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast by providing education kits and learning materials for over 1,000 children as well as recreation kits for over 4,000 children. The rights of children to both education and recreation are fundamental to every child's development. The stability, learning and development that education and recreation provide are particularly crucial in a time of conflict when children's lives are in such disarray - especially the lives of displaced children like Awa - thousands of whom are now encouraged to go back to school in Yamoussoukro's school district. But the launch of the Back to School campaign is just the start: in the coming weeks, UNICEF will distribute more education and recreation kits to benefit children throughout Ivory Coast.
UNICEF supports education and recreation activities not only in schools, but also in IDP transit centres, like the Mie Gou Displaced Persons Transit Centre in Yamoussoukro. Classes at the Transit Centre are held every day for primary school students and daily recreational activities are held for pre-school students. All children are encouraged to attend, whether their stay at the Transit Centre is just for a few days or a longer period. Addressing Ministry of Education officials, parents and media, UNICEF's Regional Director, Dr Rima Salah, said "We must remember that we are not doing children a favour by educating them. Education is their fundamental right as enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. UNICEF believes in a world in which all the rights of children are respected; a world where children are protected from violence and exploitation; a world where conflicts are resolved by dialogue, not war; a world in which all children have the right to quality education and health services; a world that ends the vicious circle of poverty; and, a world where all children participate in their full development and future. That is why we must make every effort to get girls and boys back to school to help safeguard both their future and the future of their country."
Still, despite all the cheering and waving of the children near a large banner that reads: "Whether Displaced By War or Living in a War Zone, We Have the Right to Education", it was hard not to ignore the ominous drone of an army helicopter flying low overhead. Peace in Ivory Coast remains a fragile commodity: on the same day of the launch of the Back to School campaign, rebels stated that they would resume the war in Ivory Coast in the coming days if all aspects of a recently signed peace accord are not respected. All the more reason that now, more than ever, Awa and all children living in Ivory Coast need the safety, stability, protection and sense of peace that schools can help provide children through education and recreation activities. To help ensure that stability and safety, UNICEF Ivory Coast is appealing for urgent donor support to continue the implementation of its emergency education activities for all children in Ivory Coast.