Each year, civil conflict prevents hundreds of thousands of African children from attending primary and secondary school. Rebel groups draft boys to become soldiers while girls are taken as wives or sex slaves. Today, a two-year-old program by the International Rescue Committee is helping educate up to six thousand children affected by civil strife in northern Uganda, including former child combatants and girl captives. Most of them live in camps for internally displaced people in the districts of Kitgum and Pader.
Nina Papadopoulos is the education advisor for the ORACLE project (Opportunities for Reducing Adolescent and Child Labor through Education). She told English to Africa reporter William Eagle the program, which is funded by the US Department of Labor, uses education as a means of preventing the worst forms of child labor. (These include work Inside or outside the home that does allow children to attend school, work such as stone quarrying and brick-laying, acting as heads of households, and being forced to serve in armed groups).
Instead, the ORACLE project offers them schooling and a chance to reintegrate into society and eventually the workplace.
The program provides each student with up two years assistance, including remedial classes in primary and secondary schools.
It also shows teachers how to handle children traumatized by war: “Psycho-social training for teachers [helps] children to open up, to understand their feelings. The IRC has a specific initiative called the Healing Classroom, which is not (about) changing a curriculum but helping teachers and those who work with children understand ways they can make their classroom a positive and healing environment for young people and children. For young children is it is about encouraging expression through drawing or drama; it is about making sure when a teacher is teaching, [students] do not focus on rote learning but …are encouraged to have opinions and respond truthfully. So these are things that are very important to encourage children to feel safe, supported and encouraged.”
The ORACLE project also sponsors vocational training in carpentry, tailoring, brick-laying, baking and business.
Papadopoulos says of the children now living in internally displaced camps, households headed by children are particularly at risk:
“They are at risk because they need an income to support their siblings. We look at that family unit and support all children in that family: an older sibling might have vocational training and the young we’d support with school fees for primary school….”
Also included in the outreach are former boy abductees, who without integration and outreach could resort to violence: “I think they learn certain things in the bush and…we’ve had some experiences where when children have returned they’ve had some aggression, and it’s really a question of addressing that aggression.
Many girls also return with children they had while in captivity with children. In northern Uganda – and in much of Africa – pregnant women and those with children are discouraged from returning to school. Most drop out. The ORACLE project provides childcare for enrolled mothers until they are ready to return to formal schooling.
Papadopoulos says without the ORACLE program, which is in the second year of a four-year run, hundreds of thousands of children would probably drop out or be exploited as child labor.