by Christine Ennulat, ChildFund International
Liberia’s 13 years of civil war ended in 2003. Nine years later the effects of war linger. In post-conflict societies, children are the ones who suffer the most as their parents struggle to rebuild shattered homes and livelihoods. Often, children come to be viewed as burdens, or even commodities. They became at risk for exploitative child labor, domestic violence and other abuses.
Healing has been slow. Liberia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy of 2008 includes a statement that speaks volumes: “A whole generation of Liberians has spent more time at war than in the classroom.”
Some years after ChildFund began work in Liberia in 2003, staff began to realize that, despite the ongoing rebuilding of Liberia’s decimated education system, young children ages 5 to 8 were not enrolling at the rate they should, and those who did were not staying in school.
In May 2010, ChildFund began a program called Participatory Research and Learning (PARLER) to identify the obstacles to school attendance in 25 communities and try to remove them. The program is funded by the Union de Banques Suisses.
The centerpiece of PARLER is training older teens to facilitate participatory exercises (e.g., fun, animated games) with 5- to 8-year-olds to learn what keeps them from school. The exercises help children identify problems in their communities, prioritize them, analyze solutions and plan for the future.
Martin Hayes, ChildFund’s child protection specialist who helped launch the program, says, “In the long run, this helps build skills and leadership of the youth.” And it inspires older children to look out for the younger ones.
What kept the younger children from school, the youth learned, included bullying and harsh corporal punishment in the classroom. Girls faced the additional obstacle of parents keeping them home to do housework or prioritizing their brothers’ educations over theirs. Some of the children also would go to the nearby Nigerian peacekeepers’ base to beg instead of going to school.
Acting as advocates for the younger children, the youth brought these concerns to special committees focused on children’s needs. ChildFund has trained adult members of the committees to respond as appropriate, whether counseling parents or calling in authorities.
By July 2011, according to an external evaluation commissioned by the Bernard Van Leer Foundation, 1,234 5- to 8-year-olds had been involved in PARLER sessions.
School enrolment in PARLER communities is moderately higher than in communities without the program, and retention also is higher. Children from PARLER communities also miss fewer school days and spend less time on household chores or jobs outside the house and more time on homework. In schools connected with the PARLER program, children suffer less corporal punishment; their parents are more likely to discipline their children verbally than physically. Children involved with PARLER even get sick less often.
The gains are modest, but they are consistent across many types of child-protection risks. Again, healing is slow. But this work is moving it forward.
These improvements flow from giving children and youth tools to improve their own lives. “We’re providing them with skills to protect themselves,” says Hayes, “but also life skills for when they get older.”