Seeking an education in the occupied Palestinian territory
By Monica Awad
JERUSALEM, 31 October 2004 - Constant violence, curfews, closures, home confinement and an economy in shambles are leaving many children out of school in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. During the 2003/04 school year, 197,600 Palestinian children’s and 9, 300 teachers’ school days were disrupted and at least 580 schools were closed. Some 317,000 out of 1.2 million Palestinian children of school age and their families are suffering financial hardship – particularly those living in the impoverished Gaza Strip.
More than one generation of Palestinian children is being denied their right to basic education.
Although most Palestinian children were able to return to school or receive alternative schooling in 2001/02 and 2002/03, mobility restrictions have called for the creation of a supplementary, sometimes informal, schooling system. Many Palestinian schoolchildren are now being taught by their parents, or gathering in makeshift classrooms in mosques, basements and alleyways.
School infrastructure is constantly at risk: at least 269 schools were damaged between September 2000 and June 2004; nine schools were completely closed, three of them are currently being used as military outposts. An additional 275 schools are in the direct line of confrontation. Despite the considerable efforts of donors and agencies such as UNICEF, the conflict is increasingly encroaching into Palestinian classrooms in the form of violent imagery and rhetoric, most notably in governmental schools. This is due to the fact that few families in the Palestinian territory have been spared as siblings, fathers and mothers are being killed, injured or imprisoned, houses demolished and agricultural lands uprooted.
UNICEF is working to ensure that as many children as possible have the opportunity to continue learning, even if they cannot reach their schools. Together with the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education and local non governmental organizations, UNICEF has supported alternative education projects in areas where violence and closures have disrupted school schedules and attendance. This includes providing support to the Children’s Municipality Council, youth clubs, media for and by children, and summer camps. UNICEF also supported the National Plan of Action Secretariat for Palestinian Children to launch a 'back to school' campaign to ensure that close to one million Palestinian children would return to their desks in September 2003.
An innovative programme keeps children learning
In 2002, UNICEF supported the development of a community-based pilot education programme in Hebron and Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip. In Hebron, the programme helped 12,000 children whose education had been disrupted due to closures to continue their studies following the Palestinian curriculum.
Thirty schools were involved, including 600 teachers, parents, local television networks and the district directorate. Some 230 self-learning sheets were developed covering four subjects, Arabic, English, mathematics and science, and twenty lessons were broadcast on local television stations. This resulted in 40 hours of remedial education for children in grades one to four.
“When I don’t come to school, I feel despair and pain that I cannot carry out my responsibilities,” said Sabah, a fifth-grade Arabic teacher. “The students benefit a lot from the self-learning sheets. In case students cannot get the needed information, they have an alternative. It is not the same as the classroom, but it allows students to keep up to date with their studies.”
In 2003/04, and as a result of the project’s success in Hebron, UNICEF supported its replication in four of the most affected districts, namely Jenin, Nabulus, Rafah and Tulkarem. This was implemented through a catch-up education programme that provides compensatory education for children whose learning has been disrupted. The programme covered 150,000 children and ensured that these students maintained high educational standards.
Alaa’, a 12-year-old girl from Hebron, explained that the self-learning sheets helped her and her sister study while at home in the same manner as those children who were able to go to school. “It is as if we are at school. But instead of sitting in the classroom with the teacher and our friends, we sit here and study alone; and if we face problems we ask mom or dad for help,” she said. “I would love to be free like other kids around the world, and to be able to walk to school on good roads instead of facing checkpoints and closures, and to play in peace without anyone making us miserable”.
Nahla, a mother of seven children, is herself educated, an important element in ensuring her children’s right to education. “Since I am educated, I feel it is my responsibility to support the school with these materials,” she said. Nahla, who helped prepare many of the worksheets for the project, stressed the importance of providing an education for her girls, especially in a society that gives priority to educating boys. “Girls are just like boys,” she said. “Today there is no difference, we are developing and we want our society to be educated.”