Schools as "zones of peace"
By Mario Cabrera
SHARIFF AGUAK, MAGUINDANAO, PHILIPPINES – Every day at the hint of dawn, 10-year-old Zamir Bido, together with his brother and a friend trudge the muddy roads and cross the wet fields of Barangay Tina for about an hour, covering nearly two and a half kilometres, just to attend classes at the neighbouring village’s primary school. “When it rains and it gets muddy, it’s hard to walk with slippers on so we just remove them and walk barefoot,” he says.
It used to be that for their older siblings, school was just a few paces away. But that was before 2008 when intense and widespread armed engagement between state and non-state forces broke out and left them and their families school-less, homeless and fleeing to safer grounds.
Four years after the conflict, most of their village neighbours have returned. Support from donors steadily trickled in, enabling the widening and concreting of Barangay Tina’s irrigation canals, increasing farm output and enabling village women to engage in various income-generating activities. For Zamir and his friends though, the dream of walking to school just a few minutes away and under the watchful eyes of their parents has yet to come true. But they may not have to wait for long.
Learning Institutions as Zones of Peace
Barangays Tina and Tapikan are two villages supported by UNICEF through the Learning Institutions as Zones of Peace (LIZOP) Project implemented by NGO Balay Rehabilitation Center. Balay operates in many conflict-affected areas in Mindanao. Its work to promote ‘community healing’, empowerment and development through its ‘children as zone of peace’ framework has been documented by the University of the Philippines’ Department of Community Development as a model for community-based approach to social intervention and peace organising.
Alongside UNICEF’s Education in Emergencies initiatives, LIZOP aims to model a mechanism that will ensure that children in conflict-affected areas are able to access education regularly in a safe and secure environment. Among others, the project aims to engage duty bearers – community leaders, parents, teachers, state agencies, parties in opposite sides of a conflict – to support a ‘declaration’ to promote and protect children’s right to education.
Key actors and institutions then sign and abide by a code of conduct. Various initiatives of different stakeholders are then tapped to help create a protective and nurturing environment for children. Government agencies concerned issue policy guidelines and programs to sustain the protective mechanism.
On 14 February 2012, various stakeholders, led by the community’s barangay captain Abubakar Bido and Kagawad Kahal Bido, affixed their signatures to such a declaration in ceremonies held in Barangay Tina. The declaration started out: “We, children, parents, teachers, ustadzes, barangay leaders, and all residents of Barangay Tina, Shariff Aguak are united in creating, declaring and strengthening Tina Primary School and all learning institutions in our barangay as zones of peace. These zones of peace are spaces and areas that care for the welfare of all children and put primacy in the protection and upholding of their rights; promote quality education and continued education for all children at all times and situations; mould generations of peace loving children who value understanding, multicultural respect and acceptance…”
Since 2010, a host of rehabilitation support and intervention activities have been implemented in the village. One such project is UNICEF’s Education in Emergencies initiative to build safe learning spaces where children can attend psychosocial improvement and education-related activities managed by trained community volunteers. This is envisioned to help transition children when their regular schools eventually re-open. Initially, the schools in Tina and Tapikan would become annex schools of Lapok Elementary School, located in a neighbouring village.
For the school year 2011-2012, Tina had Grades 1 and 2 while Tapikan had only Grade 1. Older school children had to enrol in nearby schools. Eventually, the offered grade levels will be expanded and the schools will then cease as mere annex schools and return to their former status.
The LIZOP project was implemented with full support from the leaders, parents, volunteer-teachers and the school-in-charge of Lapok Elementary School. Eventually the schools were declared as zones of peace, buoying up the hope that Tina’s and Tapikan’s children will be educated right in their own protected school. While the LIZOP has been concluded, the Education in Emergencies Project continues to be implemented in Barangay Tina.
With newfound support from the municipal mayor to fund one volunteer teacher and the prospect of having one permanent teacher assigned to the school, Tina Primary School last 2 July 2012 prepared to open its doors once again by accepting enrolment for Grades 1, 2 and 3.
While acknowledging that some duty bearers still need to deliver on their commitments, Yul Olaya, UNICEF EiE specialist, says he is pleased with what has been accomplished to date. As project catalyst, UNICEF has been able to bring together all relevant parties to sit down and plan for their children. “Our interventions here are just secondary as these are all temporary. We’re not here to stay but the impact we’ve had on their governance will hopefully be lasting. They are now able to identify issues that affect them, call a meeting to talk about them, and, as one community, do something about them. For me, that is significant.”
For Zamir and his friends, prospects for their attending regular school and completing at least their basic education has become brighter. Growing up in his small farming community where hardship and adversity sometimes reign, Zamir has only this one simple wish when he finishes school. “I just want to be able to help my parents,” he says.
“Indeed,” says Rey Tabudlong, Balay peace advocate, “the declaration of schools as zones of peace in this part of Maguindanao is opening new doors of hope to their communities and children.”