DR Congo

Thousands of schools closed in eastern DR Congo

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NEW YORK, USA, 21 November 2008 - Fighting in the North Kivu province of DR Congo has caused massive disruptions in schooling for hundreds of thousands of children. Throughout the province, thousands of schools are closed. Many schools are now occupied by displaced people.

UNICEF estimates that 60 per cent of the newly displaced people are children. Since late August, over 250,000 people have fled conflict, bringing the total number of displaced in the province to over one million.

In the last few days, rebel soldiers have pulled back their positions in North Kivu but humanitarian access is still limited.

Schools closed

"Rutshuru territory, in particular, has been a zone of conflict and we know that 85 per cent of schools in that territory have been closed for the last three weeks," says UNICEF Communications Specialist in Goma Jaya Murthy. "That has halted the education for approximately 150,000 students."

Without regular school, children become more vulnerable to violence and abuse, says Mr. Murthy.

"Schools actually serve as a protective environment for children," he says. "When schools are closed, children start doing other activities, for example collecting wood, or going to collect water or doing other things out in the open. They're more prone to being exploited, to being abused, to being raped and also being recruited into armed groups.

"We're extremely hopeful that the situation will come down so that schools can resume, so - of course - that children can develop intellectually, but also so that children are protected."

Emergency school supplies

UNICEF is providing emergency school supplies in some areas. It is also working to move displaced people who are currently living in schools into other forms of shelter so that classes can resume.

UNICEF is also working to provide education for displaced children. "We identify displaced students and schools in a region and we try to integrate displaced children into those schools," Mr. Murthy says.

"Often schools don't have the capacity to accommodate them, so we'll build emergency classrooms out of plastic sheets, and we can add several emergency classrooms that way."

Continued risk

The continued risk of displacement has made it difficult for many children in North Kivu to regularly attend school, says Mr. Murthy.

"This conflict is not new - it's been happening over the last 10 to 12 years, so there have been many children who've actually never gone to school," he says. "We have catch-up centres where we target adolescents and expedite their learning so that they can get basic literacy and numeracy skills that are critical for their development."

Since 1996, over five million people are thought to have died due to conflict in DR Congo, mostly from preventable disease and malnutrition. UNICEF's mission in DR Congo is one of its largest in the world.