By Sarah Press, Education Thematic Coordinator in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for Save the Children (UK)
If you wanted to put names and faces to the million of forgotten children in the world, you might start in the rolling hills of Kitchanga, north of Goma, in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). There you would find thousands of children living in poverty exacerbated by violence – and the world’s lack of interest. You might start with Jacques*, a 12-year-old boy with a bright smile and a nearly unbelievable sense of optimism.
Jacques’s father died when he was 4. When he was 10, he and his mother fled from their home when one of the many active armed groups in the region tore through their village, burning homes and fields and destroying anything in their path. “I don’t know why they did it,” he told me sadly. “No one knows.”
“When the soldiers came, we saw and ran away. I was too scared, I thought I was going to die. Everyone ran. We came on foot with nothing, only our clothes that we were wearing.”
Jacques’s uncle took them in, and his mother helps around the house, collecting water and wood and helping with the cooking.
“I wanted to go to school right away,” Jacques said, “I was in fifth grade, and I wanted to continue but I couldn’t. My mother didn’t have any money to pay and my uncle couldn’t help. Instead I helped my mother with her chores.
“Children who are not in school are treated like vagabonds, like bandits. Children who go to school are respected by the others and by the grownups. I felt awful when I wasn’t in school. I felt like I had no life.”
Last August, Jacques and his mother heard that Save the Children was helping children who were not in school enrol. Jacques was thrilled. He is now in his last year of primary school, in a school in which the teachers have been trained through the support of Save the Children, and in which there are children’s clubs and recreational activities and schoolbooks.
Jacques comes to school every day, he feels better about himself and about his life, and he hopes that one day he’ll be a doctor.
“I love school!” he said, “I want to have a good life.”
He pointed to the secondary school next door to his primary school. “That’s where I’ll go next year.”
But he probably won’t.
Secondary school fees in DRC are as high as five or 10 times primary school fees, and Jacques’s mother couldn’t pay those. The district of Kitchanga, while home to more than 20 IDP camps and more than 40,000 displaced people, is not considered enough of an emergency to garner the kind of humanitarian support that would allow a child like Jacques to continue his schooling.
Unfortunately for Jacques, as the 2011 Education for All Global Monitoring Report reveals in stark detail, education is rarely regarded as a high priority in conflict-affected situations, and certainly not in the humanitarian response in DRC.
In 2010, the collective work of humanitarian groups in education in DRC was funded at 24% of what they estimated they needed in order to be able to provide education for children like Jacques. This meant that 76% of the children targeted for increased access to decent education lost out.
Within the humanitarian community, those working in education face a constant, uphill battle in convincing colleagues and donors that education is of the utmost priority. In DRC, donors pool their funds and the humanitarian community determines what the priorities are. Despite the fact that the principal donors prioritise education in their foreign aid strategies (the UK and Sweden provided 62% and 13% of the Pooled Fund financing, respectively, in 2010), the education sector received just 3.3% of these funds in 2010.
The 2011 funding situation is not likely to be much better. Of the 1,634,670 children in DRC considered by the Education Cluster to be “at risk” (and this is likely an underestimate), the cluster aims to address the needs of just 240,000 children in 2011, or 15% of those who need help. Even this achievement, small in the face of the looming problems in DRC, is unlikely. Humanitarian funding in general in DRC dropped significantly in 2010, and education remains among the lowest of priorities for the humanitarian community.
Preliminary information on the current Pooled Fund allocation, which is announced officially on March 19, has education in last place among the sectors, at $2.5 million of a total $30 million allocation for interventions in the whole of the DRC, a war-plagued country the size of Spain, France, Germany, Sweden and Norway combined.
If we wanted to send a clear message to the children of DRC about how much we care about their futures, it seems we’ve done it.
Luckily for Jacques, still attending school in Kitchanda, thanks to the support he’s already received he will make it to the end of primary school; but what of the children who come after? Each child in Kitchanga who enrols in school, each parent who enrols his child in school, is making a statement of optimism: against all odds they are insisting in a belief in the future of Kitchanga and the future of DRC, which most of the world seems to have forsaken.
(* Not his real name)
A version of this post was published earlier online by Save the Children (UK).