Peace builds the future
UNICEF’s peacebuilding agenda as catalyst for children’s education
LANAO DEL SUR, 22 September 2023 – Six years after the Marawi siege displaced at least 360,000 people in the Province of Lanao del Sur, the students of Ragayan Elementary School in Butig continue to languish in makeshift classrooms. Their windows look out to their old school building, still riddled with bullet and bomb holes – a daily reminder of the horror that forced them to leave school temporarily.
The children’s route to school runs through narrow, unpaved roads that get muddy and slippery on rainy days. With no bridge or walkway, children must cross two parallel rivers that are often waist-deep amid dangerously strong currents. “I wish school were more accessible,” says Aina, a 14-year-old student in Ragayan who had to stop going to school and migrate to another town during the war.
Aina herself walks over an hour to school every day and says it’s an even longer walk for many of her friends. It’s the distance and inaccessibility of schools that bother them more than the bullet holes. As students are mostly from poor families, the absence of transport, rough terrain, and the long journey to school – whatever is left of it – somehow make the idea of education an ‘elusive’ one.
“Not many organizations reached the school in Ragayan since 2016 apart from the MBHTE, of course, UNICEF, and a few other NGOs,” says Dr. Johailah Balt, District Supervisor for Butig. The risk of further attacks and heightened security make access to the area especially difficult.
Building children’s future, starting with peace
The armed conflict between the Philippine Army and ISIS-inspired groups, which started in May 2017, lasted five months – disrupting the lives of nearly 100,000 children. UNICEF has since been supporting the tracking of displaced learners in Lanao del Sur and co-leading the humanitarian and development response with other partners.
The team supports communities in planning long-term rehabilitation for conflict-affected families, especially school children. As part of the peacebuilding agenda, UNICEF also leads the orientation for school heads and teachers on the Child Protection policies of the Ministry of Basic, Higher and Technical Education (MBHTE) to ensure students are safe from all forms of abuse and exploitation in school and support their recovery from trauma caused by the war.
In August this year, 784,475 students across the Bangsamoro Region returned to school for the new school year. For students in conflict-affected areas like Ragayan, returning to the same makeshift rooms has been difficult. “The heat is unbearable, but we just have to get used to it,” Aina says, adding that they lost most of their schoolbooks during the war. “I wish we had more books,” she says.
Before the school year started, UNICEF provided student kits to all 309 learners to support their continued learning. “This is a huge help for us, especially now with the rising costs of everything,” one mother sighs as she waits for her two sons outside the school.
“I always hope that the war will not happen to us again. It was destructive and especially disruptive to our schooling. We should not have had to waste a year or two."
Peace for one child is a whole society’s work
To create a sense of normalcy and peace in their environment, UNICEF arranged visits to the school with MBHTE’s regional office. “It provides children and their community a feeling of safety when they see their government officials at work, building classrooms and providing textbooks. This shifts the focus from the remnants of war and destruction to creating a conducive environment for learning,” says Radek Rzehak, Chief of UNICEF’s Field Office.
As UNICEF supports the strengthening of peacebuilding in the humanitarian and development agenda for BARMM, its focus is to capacitate teachers and governments at a technical level. UNICEF’s programmes also provide more opportunities for children and youth to participate in policy dialogues through various forms of consultation and legislation; advocate for the passage of laws and legal structures to protect children from grave violations of their rights; invest in access to platforms such as UReport, where children can freely contribute their opinions and concerns on issues that affect them; and integrate peace in the education system.
For girls like Aina, who want to be a nurse someday, and most of the 309 students currently studying in Ragayan, the road to their future is long and narrow – literally and figuratively. As she pulls through with her new backpack full of school materials, through Ragayan’s vast green fields, and on to more reading at home, she can only muster two goals: to make it to that future and make it safely in peace.
“I always hope that the war will not happen to us again. It was destructive and especially disruptive to our schooling. We should not have had to waste a year or two,” she says before waving farewell in Arabic with a greeting of peace.