UNICEF correspondent Jane O’Brien reports on refugee girls from Darfur getting education in Chad.
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NEW YORK, 13 April 2006 – Today in Dakar, Senegal, the governments, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations and other partners in the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative launched their new Regional Network for West and Central Africa, where increasing girls’ access to quality education has been a challenging task.
That challenge is put in stark relief by the story of Fatna, 14-year-old schoolgirl from the conflict-ravaged Sudanese region of Darfur.
A safe space for children
Just across the border from Darfur, in the arid countryside of eastern Chad, wind and dust whip through an open-air class where groups of girls struggle to study. Scattered trees offer little shelter, but in spite of the difficult conditions, the children persevere with their lessons.
They are among the tens of thousands of refugees from Darfur, and many have never been to school. For girls in particular, this is probably their first opportunity.
“We went to my mother’s village which was very far from the nearest school, so after year two I had to drop out,” says Fatna. “I hope I can stay in school. This would be advantageous to me. Once I know how to read and write and everything, maybe I can become someone in a good position with a responsible job.”
Fatna and her family fled Darfur after an armed raid on their community in which her sister was killed. “She died in front of us,” the teenager recalls. “We weren’t even able to bury her. We had to run. We had to leave her there.”
Education benefits families
UNICEF has set up temporary schools at 12 camps for refugees in eastern Chad. It supplies teaching equipment and materials, and helps train teachers. Lessons follow the Sudanese curriculum so that the children can continue their education when they return home.
Getting girls to school is a challenge because of discrimination and cultural traditions. They are expected to work in the home and look after other children, and are sometimes forced into early marriage. UNICEF is working in the Darfur refugee communities in Chad to stress the importance of girls’ education – and almost every child in the camps is now enrolled in a school.
“The women in the community have understood the importance of sending girls to school,” says UNICEF Education Officer Paola Retaggi. “The replies that we get from them are that they want to give an extra chance to girls, a chance that they didn’t have in Sudan.”
Even Fatna’s father is now convinced of the benefits of sending his daughter to school. “It’s important to educate girls,” he says. “If the girl goes to school then she knows everything. Sometimes it’s even good for the family. If a girl goes to school then she can aid her family.”
Getting girls into school is a UNICEF priority and an essential step towards the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015.