GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 23 October 2013 – Not all girls in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo have access to education. Melissa Kasoke, 14, does. “I like studying because I’d like to help my family someday, so I won’t always depend on my family and I’ll be able to help my parents and those who suffer,” she says.
International Day of the Girl Child is 11 October. This year’s Day focused on innovating for girls’ education.
A young girl has been raising her voice in song to gain other girls the access to education that so many girls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
But Melissa does not stop at her own education. Now, she is helping to open access to education to more and more children, mainly girls. Melissa is a talented singer, and she is using her voice to advance girls’ education.
Girls out of school
The study of Out-of-School Children in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) conducted by UNESCO and UNICEF in 2012 revealed that 7.3 million children are out of school in the DRC and about 52.7 per cent of them are girls. Low family incomes, lack of school infrastructure, conflict, displacement, death of parents, sexual violence, child marriage are some of the reasons that are denying Congolese children their right to education.
The Out-of-School Children Initiative is identifying the key barriers keeping children out of school, or pushing them out before completion. Furthermore, the initiative is helping governments to make targeted changes in their policies and strategies to eliminate these barriers and increase the number of children in school.
“In my neighbourhood, a girl who was going to school was eventually forced by her parents to marry a rich man,” says Melissa.
When they do have access to school, they may be subjected to sexual violence – or even killed. In North Kivu, where Melissa is from, the past 10 years have seen recurrent conflict and displacement. Given the insecurity in some areas, girls are at risk of being attacked on their way to or from school.
Last year, when confrontations between the M23 rebel group and the Congolese army broke out, hundreds of schools were partially or entirely destroyed, used as shelter by displaced families and occupied by armed forces or groups. “The situation caused a crisis in terms of children’s education, and UNICEF tried to ensure that children, especially girls, go to school in order to restore normal life for boys and girls even in displacement,” explains UNICEF Education Specialist Elena Locatelli.
In November 2012, the M23 rebel group seized Goma. Parents kept their children home from school for a week. In such a context, opening access to education to all children is a rather complex issue. To offset the lost lessons, UNICEF and partners advocated for children to catch up with one week of study during the December holidays.
Girls into school
In the face of such problems caused by insecurity and instability, UNICEF and partners incorporated a peacebuilding component into the ongoing Back to School campaign in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They also put together an innovative initiative through which adolescents attract younger children to school. “An adolescent girl who has the opportunity to get education can send the message to other girls on the importance of education,” explains Ms. Locatelli. “And this is more telling than an adult – a stranger to the group – doing it.”
Last year, Melissa became one of these adolescent advocates. She started raising her voice to make people understand how important education is for girls. She composed a song on children’s rights, and joined the Back to School campaign. “I am engaged in the Back to School campaign because I wanted to ask parents not to leave girls at home doing chores and waiting for marriage. That’s what most parents do,” she says.
Melissa is also a peer educator in her community. She and her friends talk to other girls about their lessons and the importance of education, urging them to stay in school.
Melissa sees a brighter future for her country in the hands of educated girls, and women. “In our country, we’ve never had a female president. All the presidents we’ve had are men. I’d like that one day we have a female president and women to be respected in our community,” she says.
And as far as what her dreams of the present involve – they involve ensuring that girls have safe access to school, through peace. “I ask our government to help us have peace…I ask for peace because peace is everything.”
Story by Ndiaga Seck