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Colombia education project reaches children kept out of school by conflict

©UNICEF video
Thanks to the UNICEF-supported ‘School in Search of the Child’ project, Johana Agudelo Norena (left) has returned to school after being forced to drop out.

MEDELLIN, Colombia, 20 June 2006 – Every day after school, Johana Agudelo Norena, 11, climbs 300 steps from the road to her house at the top of Las Mirlas shantytown in Medellin. By now she is used to arriving tired and muddy, but the important thing for her is being able to study again.

Johana lives with five brothers and sisters as well as her mother and grandmother in a cramped two-room shack with four beds and an outdoor latrine. Like many of their neighbours, they fled their small plot of land in the countryside to escape Colombia's undeclared civil war

The conflict between left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and government forces has ravaged the country for more than 40 years. It has displaced more than 3.5 million people, half of them children – exacerbating problems in cities like Medellin, where 42 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line and there are as many as 800 murders every year.

‘School in Search of the Child’

After Johana's family moved to Las Mirlas in 2004, her mother Alba Lucia earned just enough doing housework to pay the rent and feed her children. Sometimes she could buy a new piece of clothing or a pair of shoes, but for months she could not afford to send her children to school because of the cost of exams, uniforms and books.

© UNICEF video
Restarting school was a vital step forward for Johana Agudelo Norena, who was traumatized by the violence she had experienced.

Things changed when staff of the ‘School in Search of the Child’ project knocked at the family's door early last year.

The project, which is supported by UNICEF, aims to get children back into school after they have dropped out. It enrolled Johanna, her sister Gisela, 12, and brother Duban, 10, in its own preparatory classes for several months, and then arranged for them to attend the school across the valley from their home. The project pays the expenses to keep them there.

Restarting school was a vital step forward for Johana, who was traumatized by the violence she had experienced in the countryside. When outreach workers first found her, she had almost stopped speaking.

"I didn't talk much," she remembers. "At school, I'm talking all the time."

Stopping violence as a way of life

Project coordinator Jaime Saldarriaga of the Medellin Regional Corporation says reintegrating conflict-affected children into schools is essential to ending the city's cycle of violence.

"Medellin has a history of many murders and children have grown up in this atmosphere," he says. "We must do something, because if we don't then children will continue to replicate this violence as a way of life."

Starting in 2004, the project enrolled 375 children on the basis of poverty or exposure to violence and successfully reintegrated 310 of them into the school system. Johana was among 500 more children who joined the project last year.

Mr. Saldarriaga says he wants the government to take over the project so that it will expand and become a permanent part of Medellin's educational infrastructure.

Johana says her ambition is to become a doctor. It's a dream many children have, but now that she is back at school there is a chance it will become a reality.


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7 June 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Malcolm Linton reports on an education initiative for out-of-school children affected by Colombia’s armed conflict.
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