In South Sudan, educating children in crisis
By Mercy Kolok
Education is more than just a fundamental right; it helps pave the way to a successful and productive future. More children are now taking part in early childhood education, which is critical for their developing brains. Globally, enrolment in early childhood education increased from 33 per cent in 1999 to 50 per cent in 2011.
Continuing the effort to support every child’s right to an education is just one of the 25 achievements we are celebrating as we approach the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in November. Learn more about the progress we’ve made and what still needs to be done.
In South Sudan, a joint UNICEF-USAID project aims at supporting education for children who have been affected by the country’s continuing conflict.
JUBA, South Sudan, 24 June 2014 – It is a rainy morning in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Despite the weather, people appear to be going about their activities as normal at the Mahad settlement for internally displaced persons (IDPs). According to NGO Terre des Hommes, which provides assistance at the settlement, this collection of makeshift shelters, on an open patch of land close to the centre of the city, is currently home to over 2,500 IDPs. Over the last six months, they have fled the conflict that has beset South Sudan; they come mostly from Bor, Pibor and Malakal, in the central and northern parts of the country. Most of the residents here are women and children.
As we drive through the muddy spaces between these temporary homes, my attention is drawn by a group of children walking in the rain, holding hands and singing. They smile and wave at us. We are all heading to the same place – one of the UNICEF child friendly spaces in the Mahad settlement, where UNICEF and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) are about to make a special announcement.
When our car comes to a stop, more than a hundred children, some as young as 2 years old, are already gathered, singing and dancing under the guidance of their teacher.
“I’m so happy to see my children looking cheerful again,” I overhear one of the mothers say.
“Me too, I’m glad they’re able to learn again,” adds another.
But these mothers are not here only to see their children singing and dancing. Some of them are still afraid to let their children out of their sight.
“There are several communities living in this settlement, and as we’ve all come from the conflict, we never know what can happen,” the first mother tells me. “So I come with my children to make sure they’re safe.”
Despite an understanding between the IDPs and host communities to live in harmony, many residents are not comfortable when their families are separated. A lot of the children at the Mahad settlement are still not allowed to go to school regularly.
A sense of normality
Education is a key to giving children a sense of normality after they have experienced trauma, and UNICEF and USAID have come to this child friendly space to announce a US$17 million joint project for education in emergencies, which will benefit children in the conflict-affected areas of South Sudan.
“This new partnership gives girls, boys and youth a safe space in the midst of increased risks of trauma, injury, exploitation and abuse,” explains Linda Etim, USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator for Africa, to an assembled group of teachers, parents and journalists.
With the generous support of USAID, UNICEF will be able to provide safe and protective temporary learning spaces, as well as teaching and learning materials. It will support accelerated learning for out-of-school adolescents and youth, and will train teachers in life skills, peacebuilding and psychosocial support.
“In addition to the obvious need for continuing children’s education, education in emergencies actually saves lives by supporting children and adolescents with essential messages about how to maintain health in the crowded temporary shelters where they live,” UNICEF Representative in South Sudan Jonathan Veitch tells the assembled audience. “It also helps to build social cohesion and to teach children about alternatives to violence in resolving conflict, as well as giving them a positive and constructive routine in the midst of the chaos and trauma of life in this devastating emergency.”
There are two UNICEF child friendly space tents at Mahad, as well as a temporary structure built with bamboo sticks, where about 620 children attend classes and sessions for pre-schoolers.
“Some families are still reluctant about their children being away from their parents or care givers; they don’t like the children to be out of their sight,” says Katherine Smith, Country Representative for Terre des Hommes. “So we are working hard with the community members to encourage parents to bring their children.”
And for some children, it is already making a difference. “I miss my home and my friends,” a 10-year-old girl tells me. “But I’m glad to be here, because I feel safe, and I can learn and play again.”