This is not your happy back-to-school story. But it is a hopeful one.
Starting in May 2010, ChildFund partnered with Union de Banques Suisses and the Bernard Van Leer Foundation to implement a program geared toward improving school enrolment and retention rates in 25 communities in Liberia. Martin Hayes, ChildFund Child Protection Specialist, visited some of those schools. “They were surprisingly empty,” he says. “I was worried that we might be trying to get kids into already over-saturated schools.”
The program, called Participatory Research and Learning (PARLER), works with children and youth to pinpoint obstacles that keep them from going to and staying in school, and it works with them and concerned adults in the community to remove those obstacles. A Child Well-being Committee and a Parent-Teacher Association complete the triad of stakeholder groups that PARLER supports in each community.
Seven years after its 14 years of civil war ended in 2003, Liberia still has much healing to do. Displacement, family separation and forced recruitment into the armed forces have torn communities apart and have had a severe impact on the lives of children. As the lingering effects of that conflict continue to trickle down to the country’s children, they manifest in myriad child protection issues. Liberia’s high rate of school attrition, especially in the early grades, is one side effect of these issues.
To uncover the child-protection risks, ChildFund trained youth ages 15 to 19 to facilitate younger children, ages 5 to 8, to carry out participatory action research. These younger children should be starting school but are not. To learn why, the group begins by mapping the risks and resources in their households, community and school. This mapping may be done using anything from crayons on big sheets of paper to sticks etching symbols on bare earth. Groups of 15 meet twice a week to do these exercises.
“The tools are pretty complex,” Hayes says. “They’re designed to be fun, but they help children to inquire about and understand complex issues, looking at different structures in society that impact their lives — culture, politics and stakeholders.”
Among the concerns the children shared are harsh corporal punishment by teachers, bullying, parents keeping daughters at home to do housework and prioritizing education for sons, and children opting to go beg at the nearby Nigerian peacekeepers’ base rather than attending school.
And there was more. “One thing that’s very problematic about Liberia is the alarmingly high rate of child sex abuse,” says Hayes. “It’s another thing that keeps children from being able to succeed in school."
In PARLER, says Hayes, the older children act as spokespeople for the young ones and are trained in strict confidentiality. They then bring the revelations from the mapping activities to the Child Well-being Committees. “Disclosure leads to action from the Child Well-being Committees, who are trained to look for appropriate services.”
As for the PTAs, Hayes adds, “We’re trying to make them more inclusive, and their responsibilities to be about more than just fixing the roof. We’re trying to ensure that school personnel are supported by the community and that they are more accountable to parents and students so that schools become protective environments that enable learning.”
In short, the community at large, from authorities down to small children, is actively invested in supporting school attendance. “If you talk to any adults,” Hayes says, “they say, ‘Yes, we need to get these kids into school.’”
Meanwhile, the PARLER program helps youth build life skills and leadership. The older children look out for the little ones. And funds mobilized by ChildFund support the community networks in implementing their action plans for making school what it can be.