|Tunisian children study at the Zouhour primary school in Kasserine in the center of Tunisia. According to recent data, 98 per cent of children of primary-school age in Tunisia are entering primary school. Thousands of them, however, drop out every year, despite the fact that education is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 16.|
By Najwa Mekki
TUNIS, Tunisia, 17 February 2011 – Hamza lives in Sidi Hcine, a working class neighborhood in the outskirts of Tunis. He is working at the fish market in central Tunis, on a weekday, at a time when he should be in school.
According to recent data, 98 per cent of children of primary-school age in Tunisia are entering primary school. Thousands of them, however, drop out every year, despite the fact that education is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 16. In 2009 an estimated 69,000 children left school.
Hamza is the middle child in a family of three. His older brother is 17 and goes to a private school. His younger sister is 7 and started school this year. He is helping pay for their education. Both of his parents have jobs. His father works night shifts at the municipality and his mother is a house cleaner.
Lack of security
During the popular uprising that started what many are now calling the Yasmine revolution, none of the family breadwinners could go to work. A curfew, lack of security and no transport meant that they stayed at home for days. But now, as life slowly resumes in Tunis, things seem to be getting better
On a very good day, Hamza makes 10 Tunisian dinars (US$7) from his work at the fish market, cleaning, delivering and running errands. Very little of that money is his to keep.
“I would like to sign up for a vocational training class,” he says. “I would still work at the market on my days off so that I can make some money. But I would really like to learn a skill.”
According to Mehyar Hamadi, a child protection officer in the Governorate of Ariana in Greater Tunis, children who left school before the age of 16 and who are unable, or unwilling, to resume their education, usually stay in limbo.
Emphasizing children’s issues
In his work with vulnerable children for more than 10 years, Mehyar is only too familiar with how poverty, discrimination, abuse and injustice affect children. In 2010, his offices handled 374 requests for assistance.
“Money, or rather lack of it – is most often the cause of the problem,” he says. “Poverty, especially when combined with lack of education or awareness, is a breeding ground for violence, exploitation, deprivations, abandonment and all sorts of abuses against children.”
It is hard to tell how many children are in situations like Hamza’s or the ones Mehyar describes. Statistics have long been a delicate, and censored, issue in Tunisia. People are only now beginning to realize the extent of inequities in the country.
Yet numbers are key in budgeting and UNICEF views these new developments in Tunisia as an opportunity to put further emphasis on children's issues. Work under way on such sensitive questions as child labour and children living and working on the streets will benefit from renewed attention, including in the area of data collection.