A lifeline away from conflict, violence, and isolation
Peacebuilding through alternative learning is transforming lives in conflict-riddled regions
MAGUINDANO, 14 JULY 2023 – Many remote communities in Maguindanao continue to live in a tumultuous backdrop of conflict that they say can break out at any moment amidst their normal daily lives. Bai Salam Kaslon, a community teacher, says “a 7-year old boy was killed when a mortar was dropped and exploded in their village.”
They have learned to live with that kind of fear every day, like it’s the only normal thing. But now, across different far-flung villages, many adolescents and adults whose schooling was interrupted by conflict or otherwise inaccessible, are changing the narrative – some including active combatants.
Ali* was only 10 when he was conscripted by an armed group, risking his life in the fields since then. "ALS has now given me the tools to rewrite my story. I feel that education is a powerful weapon against the cycles of violence and poverty, and through ALS I have gained the knowledge, skills, and a hope for tomorrow,” he says. Now aged 23 and soon graduating from ALS, he wants to become an engineer.
Ali is not the only story of redemption here. Many young adolescents and parents who have spent years – even decades – being exposed to explosion of bombs or witnessing a neighbour get killed, are trying to change their lives and those of their families.
“Nothing good comes out of conflict or violence. We used to only know guns and bullets; always afraid to even go to school, fearing the next attacks in our homes. Now, we have a better sense of a future, including that of our children,” says Mawar*. Others who have had no education and fell into radicalised combat, he says, don’t even know their names. “They have no values, so it’s very easy for them to kill.”
As part of a broader peace agenda, expanding the ALS (Alternative Learning System) in Maguindanao provides learning for out-of-school youth and older residents, especially in protracted crisis areas. It incorporates a strong social and behaviour change strategy to make the programme more inclusive to persons living with disabilities, indigenous people, rebel returnees, and survivors of conflict – including children.
Through funding from the governments of The Netherlands and Norway, UNICEF’s technical support to ALS is reaching traditionally excluded groups across the municipalities of Shariff Aguak, Mamasapano, Datu Salibo, and Datu Saudi Ampatuan (also more commonly known as the ‘SPMS Box’ collectively).
"Education is a powerful tool for peace. It changes the lives of former combatants and those that have experienced trauma from conflict in remarkable ways; and offers them an alternative to violence by providing additional knowledge and skills. Education builds critical thinking, promotes reconciliation, and empowers them to become active contributors, promoting understanding and finding peaceful solutions. They transform their lives and contribute to building a more peaceful, just, and inclusive Bangsamoro through education and partnerships like ALS," says Mohagher Iqbal, BARMM Education Minister and peace process negotiator.
And while running ALS in conflict-affected areas presents many challenges, ALS teachers are braving the distances to reach their learners even in highly volatile conflict communities – where they hold weekly multi-grade learning sessions. Despite the hardships and risks they face, they persevere.
Bai Salam herself never misses her weekly sessions with her learners, most of whom are young mothers who married early or have recently given birth to their fourth or fifth child already. She is motivated by their drive for a future: “The lack of education and opportunities prolong poverty, and triggers conflict and violence. But seeing our young people and even their parents commit to learning, is what motivates me most. Many communities have had enough violence already, so now is the time for people to pick up the education and the right tools that lead them to gainful employment for their futures,” she says.
Asked what they hope to become after finishing ALS and, consequently, achieving formal education, Bai Salam’s female learners say almost in unison: a social worker, teacher, midwife, nurse, engineer, fire fighter, and police – all because they, too, want “a peaceful community and a future for their children.”
“Education is the single most powerful equaliser in society: without it, one can never break free from poverty nor from radical ideologies. Without it, children and youth would have difficulty having their future realised. ALS can be an immediate, mid-term solution to these, in addition to our wider efforts to strengthen the overall education system in the BARMM,” says says Radek Rzehak, Chief of UNICEF Mindanao Field Office.
* Not their real names
Quotes have been translated for brevity.