UNICEF correspondent Rachel Bonham Carter reports on a UNICEF-supported project to rehabilitate schools in Iraq.
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NEW YORK, USA, 14 February 2007 – Schools are becoming critical hubs of stability within Iraq, thanks to a UNICEF-supported restoration programme designed to stem school closures and growing drop-out rates.
Although current enrolment levels may seem high at 84 per cent, more than one in five girls is not even enrolled in primary school. For those children who do make it to school, often there are not enough qualified teachers or adequate facilities.
Insecurity is destroying Iraqi children’s right to an education and forcing parents in some areas to choose between their children’s schooling and their safety.
“Our parents drop us off at school and pick us up,” says Hanan, 11, who attends a school in Baghdad and hopes one day to be a pharmacist. “They are afraid for our safety because of what is happening in the streets – the explosions.”
The dangers for children living under such conditions were thrown into stark relief at the end of January when five students were killed in a mortar attack on their school in Baghdad; an incident strongly condemned by the international community.
Schools at the centre
In 2004, an estimated 85 per cent of Iraq’s existing 14,000 schools were in need of rehabilitation. UNICEF and its partners are now engaged in a nationwide programme to ensure that schoolchildren have comfortable classrooms, safe playgrounds and hygienic water and sanitation facilities.
These efforts have put schools at the centre of an innovative pilot project to restore local health, water and sanitation services to stricken communities. Six governorates have 110 schools participating in the project so far.
While children at the schools will receive basic health checks and learn to protect themselves against disease, entire neighbourhoods around the schools will benefit from the reconstructed water and sanitation infrastructure.
Hoping for change
UNICEF is also supplying educational materials and has trained 50,000 teachers in child-friendly teaching methods and school management, and runs non-traditional education programmes in southern Iraq to help young people who never finished school pass their final exams.
“Because of the cooperation with the organizations – especially UNICEF – we have managed to rebuild the health and sanitation facilities for pupils and teachers, and provide them with safe drinking water,” says Ghada, the director of a school in Baghdad.
“I want the situation to change for the better,” explains young Hanan. “I want to visit my relatives and go to the playgrounds. We thank UNICEF for paying attention to us.”
The continuation of schooling is a primary UNICEF concern in all emergency situations. During armed conflict and in the aftermath, education can offer structure and stability for children and adolescents. And in Iraq, as in every country, a quality education for all children is the best guarantee of a better future.