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Focus on education of internally displaced children

Half the internally displaced primary school-age children in Burundi do not go to school due to a high level of poverty, according to a recent survey conducted by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

From a sample set of internally displaced children in primary school, the survey found that there were more boys attending than girls: of a total 2,897 such children, 1,525 were boys while 1,372 were girls. "Families with limited financial means usually prefer to send boys to school; girls are only chosen when they are very bright," Jeremie Ntirandekura, the director in charge of secondary education in the Burundi Ministry of National Education, told IRIN.

"Families keep their daughters at home to look after their siblings," the UNICEF-Burundi communication officer, Sara Johansson, said.

Explaining the reasons for the low level of education among internally displaced children, one humanitarian worker told IRIN that "internally displaced families are so poor that paying school fees comes second to other basic necessities, such as food and clothing". According to the UN report, about 86 percent of internally displaced families can only afford school fees if they are assisted by the government, friends, NGOs, local organisations and other benefactors.

"Some of the girls who started going to school dropped out later to get married," the worker added. "They have the illusion that by getting married, they would escape poverty since their husbands would be in a better financial situation."

Girls who quit school often resort to prostitution. "They sleep with anyone with money - as little as 300 francs (US 30 cents)," said another humanitarian source, who asked not to be identified. "Consequently, there are too many small children in IDP [internally displaced persons] shacks."

Boys also drop out of school to seek jobs in an effort to help support their families. However, due to crushing levels of unemployment and because in most cases their parents do not have land to farm, many drift into delinquency.

The reports about the low level of education among internally displaced children in Burundi come at a time when educational standards continue to plummet due to continuing war. "Some teachers died during the crisis, others are refugees in neighbouring countries, while others joined the government administration," Ntirandekura said. "There were also a significant number of Rwandan teachers who went back to their country, and we have not been able to replace all of them."

Ntirandekura said that "in principle" the government should assist all needy children, particularly those in extreme poverty, returnees, children who are heads of households, and internally displaced children by providing them with school fees, books, fares to and from school, and medical insurance.

"The government promised to help all needy children, but it has not been forthcoming," a humanitarian source said. "This has contributed a great deal to keeping low the number of internally displaced children attending school."

The UN survey also found that children from single female parent households were more likely to have difficulties paying school fees. About 31 percent of internally displaced families are headed by women - mostly widows and divorcees with insignificant earnings.

Internally displaced children also drop out of school due to sickness, mainly malaria. "If they are sick for too long, they drop out of school because they can no longer catch up with the others," one health worker told IRIN.

UNICEF-Burundi plays a major role in ensuring that internally displaced children are not left behind due to their precarious situation: it helped educate 75,000 primary school children during the 2000-2001 school year; 80,000 during 2001-2002; and plans to assist more than 100,000 during 2002-2003.

UNICEF also intervenes in finding foster families for unaccompanied children, while at the same time participating in the search for their parents. "The parent-tracing process takes place while these children are going to school to ensure minimum disruption in their education," a UNICEF official said.

In the event that an entire community is displaced by war, UNICEF helps them to build a temporary school and to recruit teachers. "UNICEF has since the beginning of the crisis been supporting the Ministry of Education in the training of untrained teachers who were urgently recruited in order to replace those who had died or had fled the country," said Therese Niyonzima of UNICEF-Burundi, who added that "at no time do we pay teachers' salaries".

After nearly a decade of brutal warfare, some IDP camps have with time turned into villages, with infrastructure such as water provision and semi-permanent houses. "For those, in conjunction with the IDP community and the local administration, we help them build schools by helping them with the purchase of materials, while the IDP community supplies the necessary labour," Niyonzima said.

UNICEF also provides counselling for traumatised children. "Some saw their parents being killed, other people being killed, houses being burned down. We help them to overcome their trauma as they continue with their education," Niyonzima added.

Although a UN booklet on the "Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement" was introduced to humanitarian organisations at a workshop held in Bujumbura in October 2001, one year on, the principles have made little impact on IDP protection.

Some international humanitarian organisations, as well as some staff of UN agencies represented in the country, say they are not even aware of the existence of such a booklet, while others say that in some cases junior staff operating on the ground may be aware but their bosses are not.

There are exceptions, of course: Egide Niyongabo of the Burundi human rights group, Ligue Iteka, told IRIN that they apply the principles contained in the booklet, in addition to other principles drawn from the International Pact on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

According to a consultant with the Ministry for Resettlement, Fabien Yamuremye, the ministry is aware of the booklet, but "it cannot implement everything contained in it due to a lack of means". However, Yamuremye said that the ministry had its own principles, some of which were the same as those in the guidelines.

Meanwhile, the government and humanitarian actors have established the "Groupe Technique de Suivi du Cadre Permanent pour la Protection des Personnes Deplacees a l'Interieur de leur Propre Pays", whose mandate is to ensure the guiding principles are implemented and that IDPs are aware of them.

English and French versions of the guidelines are already in circulation and, according to UNICEF's Johansson, the principles have already been translated and printed in the national language, Kirundi, for distribution.

Johansson told IRIN that 20,000 copies of the booklet's Kirundi version would be distributed to local government bodies and human rights committees, while another 20,000 copies of the principles' four-page summary would be sent to schools and community organisations.

However, Yamuremye believes that more should be done to spread the message. "One meeting is not enough," he said. "There should be many more to make sure the message reaches the beneficiaries -the IDPs themselves."

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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