As Ebola dims, the focus of children, and of Street Child in Liberia and Sierra Leone, is increasingly turning to the vital issue of returning to school.
Liberia was the first to announce its intention to re-open schools, with an initial date of 2nd February – this has now been pushed back and it is likely that schools will open now on 2nd March, though some still maintain hope that it could be as early as 16th February.
Sierra Leone has announced a desire to re-open most schools as early as March – though no date has been set yet.
For Street Child, a charity focused primarily on achieving universal access to education, these are exciting, vital but hugely challenging times. As CEO Tom Dannatt and Cecilia Mansaray, Street Child project coordinator in Ebola-ravaged Port Loko, highlighted in comments in a recent (27/1/15) feature in the Independent newspaper, the obstacles are huge. They include:
· Entrenched poverty across the board – not just those families who have been directly hit by the disease;
· Parental and child fear that schools may be vectors for transmission of the disease – either through increased contact; or because they may have been used as Ebola holding or treatment centres;
· Widespread reports of vastly increased cases of teenage pregnancy;
· The fact that many children have entered the workforce and, used to earning their own money, may prefer to stay there rather than return to school
Street Child is immensely concerned at the prospect of the hiatus in education caused by the crisis becoming a ‘full-stop’ in the schooling of thousands of children – especially if children do not return as soon as schools re-open.
The charity is embarking on a back to school ‘surge’ - accelerating and/or upscaling a range of initiatives to maximise numbers of children re-entering school as soon as they re-open. These key activities include:
· Livelihood programmes to enable thousands of families to grow or recover their incomes – sufficient to at least be able to cover the costs of educating their children;
· Retaining, and adding ‘back to school’ advocacy duties to, all 1,200 Ebola educators working in remote locations (when value placed on education is typically lowest) and adding ‘back to school’ advocacy to their duties;
· Recruiting 100+ new street and social workers to identify and counsel children on the streets regarded as being at ‘high risk’ of not returning to school on time (e.g. those involved in street selling) – making referrals to the livelihoods teams where needed;
· Intensifying efforts to support ‘worst affected’ families and complex cases (e.g. orphans, pregnant teenagers) – including direct financial support (e.g. paying school fees) where needed.
The time is now. As soon as school re-opens and a child is not there, the child becomes an ‘out of school child’. We know that once a child is ‘out of school’ it becomes progressively harder to re-enter. It is vital that as many children as possible enter as soon as schools re-open: to minimize the odds that they never come back
These efforts are crucial to the future life prospects of the tens of thousands of children the charity has the potential to reach.
This is also expensive. Street Child is urgently appealing for increased donor support to maximise the impact it is able to create, using its unique platform and skill-sets in both the whole of Sierra Leone and the Greater Monrovia area of Liberia.