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Protecting children's right to education during unrest in Tunisia

© REUTERS/Louafi Larbi
A soldier stands guard near Claude Bernard primary school in downtown Tunis, Tunisia.

By Najwa Mekki

TUNIS, Tunisia, 23 February 2011 - After his school was attacked three times in two weeks, *Issam, 13, admits he’s afraid.

Popular protests in Tunisia started mid-December in the interior regions of the country and led, a month later, to the toppling of the then President, causing schools to close down for two weeks.

Situation remains unstable

Since interim authorities have taken over, schools have begun to reopen. Now, after a few days of strikes, schooling is slowly returning to normal. Insecurity, however, remains a concern. Across the country, schools have reported incidents of theft, looting, burning and armed attacks.

Issam and his older sister *Imene, 14, go to the same school in Gafsa - a city 400 kilometres south of Tunis – where there have been several attacks.

Most of the demonstrators are believed to be outlaws whose sole purpose is to destabilize the country. On one occasion, according to Imene, they came with knives, sticks and shards of glass. They even locked the teachers in one room and left with the key.

But there were also some students among the demonstrators. “Some children don’t like their teachers, and so they don’t want to come to school anymore,” says Issam.

“I think some people have misunderstood the meaning of freedom,” says his sister. “There has to be more respect in school.”

Impact on children

The exact number of schools that have been targeted during the recent unrest is unknown. UNICEF, however, estimates that basic schools have been looted, damaged or stolen in seven of out 23 regions, with serious degradations in Sidi Bouzid, the heart of the revolution, where six primary schools have been looted and partially burnt

Beyond the damage to buildings, these events have also left an impact on schoolchildren throughout the country, many of whom have been direct witnesses of scenes of violence. To make sure their children are safe, some parents have decided to keep watch inside the school.

“Schools are not just for learning,” said UNICEF Representative in Tunisia Maria Luisa Fornara. “A child-friendly school is one where children feel safe, where they can receive quality education, where they can participate and express themselves, and where they can learn how to be responsible citizens.”

Child-friendly schools are also inclusive, bringing in children with disabilities and those who may have dropped out. UNICEF is working with the Tunisian authorities to promote the child-friendly school model across the country. 

UNICEF provides support

UNICEF will be supporting the Ministry of Education in rehabilitating damaged schools, providing psychosocial support to affected children, and promoting opportunities for dialogue and the restoration of mutual trust and respect between students and teachers.

In the meantime, Imene is worried. “I want things to go back to normal,” she says. “I have an important exam this year, and I want to pass it.”

Both she and her brother are looking forward to the day when things calm down and they resume their daily activities.

“I hope things improve soon,” says Issam. “This is taking too long.”

*Adolescents' names have been changed to protect their identities.



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