For six months now, I’ve been asking myself and others, what will end the cycle of war in east Democratic Republic of Congo? As I prepare to leave, I think I may have found the answer – education.
What will start to unravel the militarisation of society? What will give young boys alternatives to war? What will tackle the poverty, which forces many to fight? Every time, I come back to education.
Out of school
Jean-Claude has only been to school for two of his 15 years. Since he and his family fled their home in eastern Congo last year, he has lived in a camp with thousands of other children whose families are also too poor to pay for education.
“The president is an important person because he studied,” Jean-Claude tells me.
And in a comprehensive assessment of needs conducted by World Vision in 23 communities across South and North Kivu in June last year, every focus group identified the lack of access to education among the highest concerns in their community.
The Congolese constitution establishes free access to education for all children of primary school age, but most families must pay school fees in order to cover the salaries of teachers not paid by the state. For parents struggling to provide the basics of food and water to their children, school is not an option.
Jean-Claude's mother and father earn a living collecting firewood from the nearby forest, or carrying goods for others. They might cultivate other people's land but they will never earn more than a dollar a day. None of their six children go to school.
In North Kivu, only one in three children currently have access to basic education while nationally more than half go to school. This is largely due to the mass displacement in the east and the lack of educational services for children in camps.
Funding available to humanitarian and UN agencies for emergency education is embarrassingly low for an area of such great need.
During my time here I have met young boys who joined an armed group because commanders promised them a decent wage. Women have told me crime levels are rising as the number of street children increase in rural areas.
“These children who have been displaced for a time,” a woman said, “stop going to school. Three years after leaving school, what are they to do? Nothing, so they’re forced to look for a means of survival and the easiest way to do that is to take other people’s belongings.”
I have met girls who are forced to sell sex in order to afford their next meal. Asked what would get them out of the bars and into a new life, they answer education.
Today I talked to girls who have been rejected by their families because they were raped and bore a child. They no longer go to school and do not know how they will afford fees for their own children as they grow up.
A girl holding her small son on her knee summed it up perfectly. “If they grow up in an environment where they go to school, perhaps it will prevent them from becoming soldiers,” she said.
If education is really the answer, the solution is fairly simple. International donors must invest more in emergency education to ensure displaced and vulnerable children go to school and the government must make sure teachers are paid and education is free.
“I can’t read,” said 15-year-old Jean-Claude, “so other people can take advantage of me. They might make a fool of me.”
We must not make a fool of ourselves and ignore a truly sustainable intervention flagged by pretty much every single person affected by the ongoing crisis here in east DRC. We must prioritise education.
Anna Ridout works for World Vision in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo