Cote d’Ivoire: child peace messengers promote dialogue and tolerance in communities
Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire, 27 August 2009 – In the run-up to the presidential election due at the end of november 2009, UNICEF in partnership with the Ministry of National Education and the Catholic Scouts Association mobilized a total of 224 school children coming from 14 different regions in Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire from 9-15 August to participate in the third edition of the Peace Messengers Children’s Clubs.
During six days children roamed communities bringing messages of peace, tolerance and friendship to promote acceptable standards of behaviors among populations from different neighborhoods and sensitize populations on HIV/AIDS prevention and hygiene.
The goal behind the creation of such clubs is to reinforce children’s acquired knowledge, attitudes and skills in formal classes on notions of peace, HIV/AIDS and hygiene through experimental learning and replication during recreation with peers.
Children gathered in groups each representing a different family by color. Each family gave itself a name and internal structure and the groups of families formed a village with an elected king and queen. At the end of the day the families would gather at the palaver tree to take stock of activities and solve conflicts or difficulties encountered during the day by families, traditional chiefs and other local dignitaries in the imaginary village.
Bringing adults to talk to one another
Among the issues that were often brought out by the children are the distribution of school kits that do not reach the intended audience, the cost of school canteens, problems of birth registration for those examination, the involvement of children in armed conflicts; boys asked about the emphasis on girls’ education, vaccination, the lack of water in schools and latrines.
For children being allowed to engage in a dialogue with adults and to be permitted to ask questions freely is a great achievement for children members of the clubs.
"They allowed us to talk for ourselves and we had our own facilitators during our focus group discussions. We were not told not to say this or to say that as we do in school. I found it was great. I represented the Queen of the Foundikro village and read a poem on peace during the opening ceremony in front of everybody. I felt like a queen, added Grace!"
As for Essaie who is eleven years old and lives in Bouaké and goes to primary school, he was happy to see children from other regions coming to Bouaké which had become the stronghold of the Forces Nouvelles rebellion at the height of the crisis in 2002 thus causing the split of the country between North and South.
The restoration of peace following the signing in March 2007 of the Ouagadougou Peace Agreement had enabled the free circulation of populations and goods from either side.
"I was happy to see children like me who had never been to Bouaké because they were told that if they come they would die. Together we were able to see that the war had ended,” said Essaie.
The conflict left out more than 1 million children out of primary schools and deepened the discrepancy between boys and girls’ enrollment whose rate decreased from 62 per cent in 2000 to 51 per cent in 2006.
Many teachers who fled the conflict areas now return but many structural problems due to pervasive poverty are responsible for the lack of sufficient school furniture (tables and chairs for children) and canteens are salvage for parents, like Noel’s who encounter difficulties meeting both ends.
"I was able to ask questions about school furniture that should be distributed to children but that teachers sell and on school canteens says 13 year-old Noel."
The politico-military conflict promoted hatred, resentment of one another and revenge among parties in conflict and within communities.
Though major bottlenecks in the peace process have been partly resolved, the country is still striving to mend pieces of the broken social and economic fabric.
Peace messengers clubs established in UNICEF rehabilitated schools promote values of peace and tolerance but also enhance children’s participation but also in national dialogue.
By Yvette Bivigou and Aye-Ake Ange