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Dropping guns for books in Haiti

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©© UNICEF Haiti/2006
Children in Cité Soleil – one of the most violent slums in the Haitian capital – receive school bags from UNICEF during a recent back-to-school campaign.

By Christian Skoog

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 21 September 2006 – A back-to-school campaign has brought new hope to the children of Cité Soleil, the seaside slum in the Haitian capital that has long been regarded as one of most violent neighbourhoods in the whole Western Hemisphere.

For years, powerful gangs have seized control over the community, forcibly recruiting children, and keeping away outsiders, including most humanitarian workers. Violence and increased poverty have forced many schools to shut down, leaving thousands of children without an education.

But following the election of René Préval as the new President in February, a window of opportunity opened up. The gangs declared a unilateral truce, and the area finally became accessible.

UNICEF immediately launched a massive vaccination campaign for all of the slum’s children and women, immunizing 20,000 children and 30,000 women against common preventable diseases.

Back to the classroom

Together with the International Organization of Migration (IOM) and the local authorities, UNICEF identified requirements to bring every child back to classrooms in Cité Soleil. Water and sanitation facilities are being improved in 40 schools, while essential supplies are distributed to all students and their teachers in all 201 schools.

On 14 September, all school directors in Cité Soleil publicly thanked UNICEF and IOM for launching the back-to-school effort. “For the first time in recent history, all material arrived on time and without any diversion,” said the Director of Ecole Canado de la Passion, Charles Linstin Martin, speaking on behalf of the other directors. He added that it would be preferable to have the two agencies organizing all future humanitarian distributions.

A total of 271 schools and more than 68,000 children are being provided with basic learning materials in Cité Soleil and other violence-affected neighborhoods.

Path to peace and development

The back-to-school campaign in Haiti is closely linked with the launch of the National Programme of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration. UNICEF plays a major role in ensuring that the programme pays due attention to the rights of children, and in promoting education as the best means to protect them against violence.

“I strongly believe that violence is the primary obstacle to development,” said UNICEF Representative in Haiti Adriano Gonzalez-Regueral. “There are still a lot of children in Cité Soleil and in other parts of Haiti who do not have access to school. We need to join efforts and to mobilize enough funds to reach those children in order to keep them away from being given guns instead.”

Together with the World Bank, UNICEF is also supporting the School-Fee Abolition Initiative – part of the National Strategy for Education for All. The average Haitian family spends a higher proportion of its income on education than any other country in the world. Only 54 percent of Haitian children attend school.

An additional $78 million will be required annually to reach the 2015 Millennium Development Goal of having all children in school – a small price to pay to set the country on a path to peace and development.


 

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