Increased household chores due to shortages of cooking fuel, coupled with security concerns, are keeping many children in Iraq’s southern city of Nasiriyah away from school.
An acute shortage of propane cooking gas in the city means that many children were being kept at home to help their families with cooking, Norman Sheehan, the chief executive officer of the NGO Warchild, told IRIN from Nasiriyah. The plant outside the city which normally bottled the gas, piped in from Basra and Baghdad, was severely damaged during the recent hostilities.
"When we asked teachers why attendance was low, they said that children were being used as a labour base to help their families by collecting wood, chopping down trees or collecting bread from local bakeries," said Sheehan, who has been doing an assessment of the city's schools. While families had no gas to cook with, those who could afford it were sending ready-mixed dough to local bakeries, which had to be taken there and then collected - often by children - by late afternoon.
Nasiriyah’s 256 schools reopened after a month’s closure about 10 days ago, but a significant number of children have not yet reported for class. Many of these appeared to be girls, Sheehan said. "In one girls' school visited by Warchild there were only 178 out of 268 present," he said, "and in another only 120 out of a total of 198." A boys' school, by contrast, was practically full.
Girls were scared that the schools would be attacked again, following the heavy looting two weeks ago, he said. "Schools used to be used as meeting points for the Ba’th Party, and then as Iraqi army command points during the war. There is a lot of fear that they’ll return," he added.
Many of the schools in the city are currently running three shifts per day, from 08:00 until 11:00, 11;00 until 15:00 and 15:00 until 18:00 (local times) to cater for extra children coming in from schools destroyed by looters. Class sizes were averaging 50 or 60 pupils, Stephanie Judge, a programme coordinator with Warchild, told IRIN.
On top of low attendance, teachers are reporting that children are complaining of being hungry during the day, as well as falling asleep during classes, and having short attention spans from poor food intakes. "One engineer in a factory asked us how he was supposed to afford meat for his family at 3,000 Iraqi dinars [ID] [US $1.80] a kilo, when he only earned 8,000 ID a month," said Sheehan.
The newly appointed Nasiriyah City Council is keen to see the children return, but has limited resources to use as incentives. As an experiment last week, milk powder was given to children in the Al-Ghasamah school during morning classes; by the afternoon an extra 170 children had turned up for class.
The last food rations distributed under the public distribution programme, formerly part of the Oil-For-Food Programme, were given out before hostilities started on 10 March. They were expected to last until August, but it is feared that many families have been forced to sell their supplies meantime. Moreover, local authorities are beginning to run short: on Tuesday, Warchild witnessed rations being given out for September which did not contain the essential staples of beans and rice.
Meanwhile, the city council and teachers are struggling to keep the schools going - with erratic electricity supplies, renovations that desperately need to be taken care of, destroyed buildings, blocked and stinking toilets, and in many cases no stationary or copybooks. "The teachers have no idea where they are going to get their next salaries from, but they say the priority is to get the children back to school," said Sheehan. "They lost a month due to the fighting, and desperately want the children to sit their exams in June."
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