MAN, Côte d’Ivoire, 1 April 2011 – More than 800,000 Ivorian children are finally resuming their studies after several months in which their schools remained closed due to on-going political conflict.
“It feels great to be back at school, working with my young students, despite our basic working conditions,” says Fofana Abdoul Dramane, a teacher in the western town of Man.
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Jennifer Hofmann, a UNICEF education specialist, discusses the organization’s efforts to help reopen schools for children despite the intensifying political crisis in Côte d’Ivoire.
Some schools had been closed for up to six months due to violence in the run up and aftermath of the country’s disputed presidential election last November.
As part of the political unrest, President-elect Alassane Ouattara encouraged civil servants to strike in protest at outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to accept the election results. About 60 per cent of Côte d’Ivoire’s civil servants are teachers, so the action had widespread implications for school children.
United Nations and UNICEF advocacy work at a regional and national level helped lead to the re-opening of schools in northern Côte d’Ivoire. This has since been followed by President-elect Ouattara’s government ordering schools to re-open for all Ivorian children.
This week, many schools in central, northern and western regions of the country re-opened their doors. But a lot of them lack adequate classrooms and basic supplies.
“To be able to teach young people again is an inspiration, even if I have a very hard time getting my salary these days,” says Mr. Dramane.
During the violence, many schools were occupied by displaced people who sought shelter from the violence. This means that to effectively start classes again, school equipment and supplies need to be replaced, and teachers require refresher training and support.
UNICEF is seeking $6 million in order to provide education materials, teacher training, incentives for volunteer teachers and community mobilization to support a ‘Back to School’ campaign that will target 1.2 million school children.
With more than 1 million people displaced due to the clashes – particularly in the city of Abidjan and the western border area – the need for assistance is acute.
Many people are moving northwards to safer places and the pressure on the school system in that region is increasing to the extent that double shifts to accommodate all children are becoming more common.
“A double shift system in the schools is one alternative put in place to integrate internally displaced children,” says Jennifer Hofmann, who heads the UNICEF education cluster. She adds that the school day begins with a first round of lessons from 7 to 11 a.m., followed by a second for displaced children in the afternoon.
Keeping children in school
Attending school is always important, but even more so in a time of crisis. Children who do not attend are at a higher risk of being recruited into various armed groups or being abused, particularly in countries already experiencing unrest.
“When the conflict and violence intensifies, various parties often call upon children to take up weapons,” says Ms. Hofmann. “UNICEF is therefore establishing contacts with armed groups to prevent recruitment of children and create a common platform of understanding concerning the rights and protection of children.”
Mr. Dramane is counting on his young students to cram nine months’ worth of studies into five before the end of the school year. Some of his students have even been studying by themselves at home, while they waited for schools to re-open. They are determined not to give up on their right to a better future.
“I’m dreaming of completing my basic school exams and studying to become a nurse,” says one of his students, a girl pleased to finally be able to continue her education.