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UN Moves To Return Children to Classrooms in Conflict Zones in Mexico
By Marwaan Macan-Markar
Inter Press Service

    MEXICO CITY, Mar 24 (IPS World Desk) - A United Nations agency has begun relief efforts to help children of the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) regain lost years of education.
   The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) will provide desks, notebooks, pens, chalk and learning manuals for teachers and students willing to return to schools in the war-ravaged African nation.
  This month, the UN agency revealed the perilous state to which that country's school system had been reduced as a result of the conflict. Education in the Congo (Brazzaville) is ''seriously paralysed,'' stated UNICEF, resulting in more than 50 percent of children being denied schooling.
  Due to the prevailing spate of wars around the world millions of children have had no schooling. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), for instance, estimates that close to five million children could have no access to schools.
   This number, however, may rise when the millions of internally displaced people (IDP) are accounted for. ''Around the world 20 million refugees and 30 million displaced persons live in precarious circumstances, and at least 60 percent of this number are children,'' says Sheena Hanley of Education International, a Brussels-based non-governmental organisation (NGO).
  For Hanley, this scenario reveals a shift in the manner in which wars are being fought. While during the First World War only five percent of the victims were civilians, the recent spate of conflicts have affected civilians in significantly larger numbers.
  Studies done by her organisation have identified common patterns with regard to the loss of education for children during times of conflict. In the case of secondary-school students, for instance, wars in their immediate vicinity have resulted in a number of students ''not returning to education'' or such levels of schooling not being available in refugee camps.
  In addition, these children have also been abducted by rebel groups in increasing numbers, particularly in Colombia, Sri Lanka, Burma, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Turkey.
  For primary-school children, on the other hand, their families often choose not to send them to school ''because of fear of attacks on the way to and from school.''
  Furthermore, the World Bank states that other factors, too, have contributed to the loss of opportunities for education: the destruction of school buildings, the disruption of family life and the need to work when adults have been killed or end-up as refugees.
  ''Overall, the loss of primary education is more severe in the sense that it denies children and youth basic literacy and numeracy skills,'' says Christopher Walsh, a Bank spokesman.
  When he presented his annual report last year, Olara Otunnu, the UN special representative for children and armed conflict, made special reference to the number of children who have had to endure ''interrupted education.''
  He used that occasion to call on the international community to take into consideration the issue when it drafts plans to pursue programmes aimed at protecting and rehabilitating children from ''the devastating effects of conflict.''
  ''The promotion and strengthening of local value systems, working to rehabilitate medical and educational facilities and formally integrating child protection into every aspect of United Nations peace operations,'' should also be included in these programmes, he said.
  For Kacem Bensalah, the director of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation's (UNESCO) Emergency Educational Assistance Unit, relief efforts will require a large programme.
  ''Restoring access to schooling, social integration of child soldiers, restoring sychological needs and rehabilitation'' are some aspects that require focus, Bensalah says. In addition, ''education for peace and conflict prevention and vocational training'' need to be factored in, too.
  These efforts have convinced Hanley that there is emerging consensus about the need to place the loss of education for millions of children in conflict zones as a priority area. ''It is only now that it is being understood that schools bring a degree of stability to ... children in unstable situations and allows them to help rebuild their lives,'' she observes.
  Previously, in her view, education was not considered as one of the ''priority areas'' when refugees or IDPs had to be assisted. Water and sanitation, medical care and food had been the major focus of relief efforts.
   This month, UNICEF provided a report card that highlighted its successful accomplishments in this regard -- getting children back into school in war-ravaged Kosovo.
  The massive humanitarian assistance during the past year has done much to ''improve the immediate circumstances of the region's children,'' it states.
  ''A UNICEF-led alliance of relief organisations, international donors and local communities has succeeded in getting 97 percent of primary school children back in class,'' it notes.
  Further, this initiative has also resulted in the ''repair and opening of 385 of Kosovo's damaged school buildings more than a third of the total.''
  Nevertheless, both Hanley and Bensala agree that such stop-gap measures will not help resolve the impact of conflicts on children's education in a satisfactory way. What is required is a ''new strategy of education in situations of emergency and crisis,'' says Bensala.
  Adds Hanley, those who violate this children's right should be held accountable. ''Charges should be laid in the International Criminal Court against any group that violates children's rights and causes the kind of devastation of lives that we have witnessed in the last few years.''
  This article is free of copyright restrictions and can be reproduced provided that Inter Press Service is credited.
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