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A new government program aims to provide a free education for all Haiti's children
By Benjamin Steinlechner
PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti, 26 October 2011 – Lucien, 11, is the only child in his class not wearing a uniform. Sporting a t-shirt and jeans, he looks out of place amid throngs of children wearing neatly ironed, identical blue and white uniforms.
‘Education is crucial’
His school in Tabarre, a Port-au-Prince neighbourhood close to the capital’s airport, is where Haitian President Michel Martelly recently announced that 772,000 children will receive free schooling this year.
“I haven’t been to school for two years,” said a smiling Lucien. “I did my first year when I was nine in another school. But then my parents couldn’t afford to pay the school fees anymore, and I had to stay at home.”
Many parents often spend almost all of their money on school fees for their children, which in Lucien’s school averages around 450 Gourdes – about US$11. Others, like Lucien’s parents, simply could not afford to send their children to school.
“Education is crucial for the development of children, families, communities, and for the future of Haiti’s reconstruction,” stressed UNICEF Representative in Haiti Françoise Gruloos-Ackermans. “This initiative by the Haitian government will help thousands of children who never had the chance to go to school to get an education.”
School for free
Thanks to the new government programme, many students like Lucien go to school for free now. That his parents still couldn’t afford to buy him a uniform doesn’t really bother him.
“I am just happy to be here in school and to learn a lot of useful things,” he said. “I want to learn French because that will help me to find a good job.”
The new government programme's target is to make it economically possible for every child to go to school. To this end, it will introduce free schooling across the country in stages.
Poverty is particularly bitter in areas outside Port-au-Prince, where jobs are few and access to basic services like education is difficult, if available at all. This is why most of the funding allocated by the government for paying the school fees will initially be spent there.
Still, children in Port-au-Prince like Lucien are benefitting from the free schooling.
Giving children hope
Unlike in previous school years, none of the children in the national school in Tabarre have to pay school fees. Eleven-year-old Nai Ka is classmate of Lucien’s, and like him, she hasn’t been to school in two years.
“My parents are very proud I am going to school again,” she said excitedly. “I am also very happy that I get food here every day. At home I sometimes have to go two days without eating anything.”
The World Food Programme is supporting the government’s programme with daily food rations for the children.
“Going to school gives children back their hope,” explained Jean Francois Lucien, headmaster of the Tabarre School. “It helps them forget about their often dire situation at home and focus on something entirely different and stimulating.”