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INDOpinion

Going to school and playing in safe areas are so important

Wednesday, 4th April, 2018 5:21pm

People ask me if it is dangerous in the places that I travel to for work. The answer is sometimes yes, but we take certain security measures to alleviate this.

In the week before I travelled to Central African Republic (CAR) I went past two areas in Dublin, once on foot and once on my bike, where within an hour or two, people were shot. This is a really unnerving reality as gun violence in Dublin is taking its toll.

Imagine living in CAR where gunshots and violence have been a regular part of life for the past five years.

As a result of the conflict in CAR, an estimated 545,000 people fled to neighbouring countries. 20 per cent of schools in the country are closed, and more than 70,000 children are deprived of education in areas where displaced people live.

I recently attended a training session which looked at the impact of conflict and violence on children and how it can affect children from a very early age, impacting their general wellbeing and intellectual development. There are, however, a lot of things that can help.

Going to school and playing in safe areas are so important when it comes to children being children and laying the foundations for healthy, functioning adults.

In many emergencies, these type of activities are often overlooked as they are not considered to be life-saving, but at Plan International, we feel very strongly that they must be considered as part of a suite of responses, which also includes shelter, food and nutrition.

Here in CAR, we are working with thousands of children to ensure that they get an education and that they can play safely.

During the conflict in CAR, many children were taken forcibly to join armed groups. Plan International also works with many of these children in the demobilisation process, providing psychosocial support, vocational skills and in many cases, find families to care for them.

At the school I visited recently, where these new classrooms are being built, the average number of kids in a class is 150.

Their needs are huge; there aren’t enough classrooms, teaching materials, books or adequately trained teachers, but Plan International is making a difference to the lives of so many children.

We have trained teachers, provided school kits, rehabilitated and built classrooms, build latrines, and trained some parents to be teaching assistants so that they can help in the classes and improve education levels.

Journeys

On my most recent visit to West Africa, I thought a lot about the journeys we take, both actual and metaphorical.

My trip started in Burkina Faso and with two colleagues we were due to make the journey to Abuja, Nigeria, with one stop over.

Of course, it didn’t go to plan, and a six hour trip ended up taking two and a half days! We were well-cared for by the airline and although we were inconvenienced, we finally arrived with our luggage intact.

The north-east of Nigeria is at the heart of the Lake Chad crisis, where 2.3 million people are displaced. Many have fled their homes because of conflict, with little opportunity to pack or to prepare for their journey.

Who was there to help them? Did they know their destination when they left their homes? What services were provided on the way? When will they be able to return home? For most of the displaced there is no certainty.

Life, interrupted

On my first visit to Maiduguri in north-eastern Nigeria in 2016, I met with families who had left their homes 18 months previously and were living in camps with access to a limited number of services.

However, those who are living in the host communities often have no access to any type of services, for example water, sanitation or education. The stabilising influence of education on children as they embark on their life’s journey is vital.

However, in Borno state, it is estimated that more than 70 per cent of children between the age of five and 16 have never been to school.There are many reasons for this. Many parents did not value education for their children or were unable to cover the costs associated with schooling.

Another factor impacting low enrolment and attendance is early marriage. Girls are very unlikely to enrol in education after they get married. Across the north-eastern states, the number of girls married before the age of 18 is almost 70 per cent.

During this visit, I met with classrooms full of youth who were availing of catch-up classes, the aim of which is to enable them to enrol in regular classes once they have finished. When asked why they had never attended school before, they all explained that their families did not have the means to support them, but with the assistance of Plan International, they are able to do so.

I also met with children who had received school supplies and uniforms to enable them to go to school.

Another challenge facing the education system is the lack of infrastructure. Many schools were destroyed as Boko Haram directly targeted the education system, so there is an urgent need to provide safe spaces where classes can be held.

During my stay, I participated in the official handing over of 32 temporary classrooms to the education authorities. During the ceremony, two girls spoke passionately about the need to educate girls and the importance of education.

"Education is the power, education is the key." This is the song that the children kept singing wherever I met them. Anecdotal evidence in the north-east is that more parents than ever are sending their children to school, as they appreciate the need to educate their children, and the value of education as they embark on their journeys.

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