The little things making a big difference for education in emergency contexts in Uganda
In the aftermath of a brutal attack by an armed group on a school in Kasese District in Western Uganda, play materials and dignity kits are enabling children to recover and willingly return to, stay in and even enjoy school.
Kasese:- The lunch bell rings at Mpondwe Primary School in Mpondwe Lhubiriha Town Council, Kasese District. Hundreds of children dash out of the classrooms to the adjacent sports pitch, squealing with excitement as a netball match begins. Thirteen-year-old Salama* joins the boys playing football, dribbling a brand-new ball past three opponents before heading for the goal post. She doesn’t score, but she keeps smiling and continues to play.
“When I play football, I forget everything else,” she says.
Salama has a lot to forget.
On 16 June 2023, an armed group attacked Mpondwe Lhubirira Secondary School and killed 43 people. Among them were Salama’s relatives.
In the aftermath of the attack, the community was paralyzed with fear resulting in a shut-down of most schools with only a handful opening for few hours. According to the Inspector of Schools for Bukonzo West, Ezra Birahule Muhindo, attendance greatly dropped with only about 4 in 10 children reporting to school. At Mpondwe Primary no student reported for a full week immediately after the attack.
As part of the emergency response, UNICEF is partnering with Kasese District Local Government to sensitize parents, school management committee and community leaders on identifying and responding to learners with mental health and psychosocial challenges resulting from the attack. One small-sized intervention seemed to be hastening their return to normalcy---play materials.
With support from UNICEF, Kasese Education Department has distributed 372 footballs and netballs to 93 schools so far, and the two footballs and two netballs per school are helping children like Salama alleviate tension, cope with stress, build resilience and remain in school.
“Play is a form of psychosocial support for children,” the Inspector of Schools explains, “They forget their problems and make friends as they have fun.”
Transitioning schoolgirls from survival to recovery
About 3 km away, a separate lot of students are staying in school, but for a different and even smaller-sized reason. Each of the 369 girls at Nyabugando Baptist School in Mpondwe Lubhiriha Town Council has received a dignity kit that fits in two palms clasped together. Each kit comprises two packets of ultra-absorbent reusable sanitary towels that can last for over 60 washes.
According to the senior female teacher at Nyabugando, the vulnerabilities of girls have increased following the attacks as families abandoned their homes, businesses and sources of livelihoods, struggling to stay alive in safer areas. With survival as the paramount focus, everything else was secondary, including menstrual hygiene management.
The 12 reusable sanitary towels thus are not just the components of a dignity kit, but along with psychosocial support, are also a key part of the recovery process.
“The attack doesn’t have to be the end of your future, please study and let’s move on together as a community,” Faisal Kirarira Bagumira, the Kasese District Probation and Social Welfare Officer counsels during the school assembly.
A few minutes later, the Senior Three and Six learners walk back to their classrooms, dignity kits in hand, to sit their end of term exams. Among them is 23-year-old Agathe* who wishes to become a reverend doctor when she completes school, so that she can “treat people’s souls and bodies.”
“Now I don’t have to worry about the UGX 5,000 (about 1.5USD) that I needed per month to purchase disposable sanitary towels,” Agathe says in a sharp, clear voice. A total of 1,350 schoolgirls across Kasese, who have received the UNICEF-funded dignity kits, no longer have to bear this worry either.
In addition, Allen Uhiriwe, the Programme Officer, Child Protection at UNICEF Mbarara Zonal Office, reveals that in emergency contexts where livelihoods are lost, dignity kits minimize chances of transactional relationships; a crucial step in mitigating the risk of gender-based violence.
“UNICEF is keen on exploring all possible means to facilitate and strengthen resilience within communities, families and individuals, particularly children, to recover from and adapt to adversities,” Allen concludes, “to give hope to every child.”
In Kasese where the normalcy of life was disrupted, it is the seemingly little things such as play materials and dignity kits that are making a big difference in ensuring that that no child is left behind.
With funding from SIDA, UNICEF is working with the local government to provide play materials, sanitary towels and other school supplies to supported children affected by emergencies in Kasese.
* Name changed