Faces of child-friendly schools in northern Colombia
A few months ago we read a news item about a visit by high-level dignitaries to the Santa Inés and San José schools, located in the municipality of Ayapel, Department of Córdoba, a northern Colombia region affected by violence. But beyond the visit of these authorities, something caught our attention – something that was not part of the news.
Smiles in the middle of war
The first thing you could see was that the schools were quite different from the ones you usually find in rural areas, and even in the country’s large cities.
There were smiling children, studying and playing, dancing around happily and looking well nourished and healthy. Their uniforms were clean and their books in good shape. A friendly and engaging teacher explained the elements of the child-friendly school initiative – inclusion, permanence and success in school – and the fundamental strategic axes that guide the education process – awareness-raising, respect for rights, participation, community mobilization, creativity and everyday practice.
Other indispensable elements could be noticed, too, such as the school infrastructure, ‘real’ toilets for children, trapezoidal tables that could be grouped in different ways, school supplies. And finally, the pedagogical components: curriculum, community, participation, relations and communication, health care, psychological recovery often necessary for the mental health of displaced persons, nutrition.
These results, achieved with victims of displacement and armed conflict, would be surprising if they were not the outcome intended by the child-friendly school strategy – an enviable outcome that UNICEF wishes to replicate in other areas of the country.
“I can’t wear them! Can’t you see they’re new?”
In emergency situations, an additional element of the child-friendly school strategy is the provision of edukits (sets of school supplies, books, notebooks, and other items needed for children’s education) and the provision of uniforms and shoes, which have a marvellous impact on the mental health of children and their parents as well, as they can enjoy with their children what they themselves cannot provide them. The following scene was narrated by UNICEF Assistant Protection Officer.
“Shoes are a luxury for many rural children, but they are absolutely indispensable at the child-friendly schools One day, after shoes were being distributed to small groups, several children took them off and ran away happily, carrying them in their hands. As I ordered them to put them on, one little fellow answered, ‘I can’t wear them! Can’t you see they’re new?’ hugging the shoes as if they were the most precious of toys, which he obviously didn’t have.
This is an indirect exercise to improve children’s self-esteem in practice. That is why it is so important to insist on the comprehensiveness of the child-friendly school project. The things that produce health and education also redound in the emotional sphere, and vice-versa. Another boy of only about eight said to me, ‘They’re new and they’re just for me’. That sentence from his little mouth got my attention. As I asked him why, he explained that his older sister always got the new shoes, and that he used to inherit the ones that she had outgrown. So, for him, having new shoes was something splendorous.”
Right away, I imagined that the boy would sleep that night with the shoes in his hands, and that he would only use them for going to school or when his mom would ask him to wear them. For him, there could be no better gift than new shoes for school … Now he would be able to walk without his feet hurting.”
Today, amid the armed conflict, the partnership between UNICEF and the Catholic Church in various regions of Colombia starts bearing fruit, with children studying happily, families attending school to recover their lost illusions, and communities acting as guardians of the place where all of them are acquiring the tools that can bring them a better life.
© UNICEF Colombia/2006/Brodeur