By Rob McBride
BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka 4 May 2010 – In a remote part of eastern Sri Lanka, the rhythmic chant of children’s lessons reverberate through one of the region’s newly re-established schools. Students here are learning the basics of reading and writing after having had their education interrupted by armed conflict.
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Many of the students at this school were displaced by violence during Sri Lanka’s more than two decade-long civil conflict. In addition, they have had to contend with the devastation wreaked by the Indian Ocean tsunami five years ago.
Back to school
“When we were displaced, my mother would spend her time collecting firewood,” said Shanthi. “I would have to look after my brothers and sisters.”
Today, however, Shanthi is back in school. Taking her turn at the chalk board, she pronounced the words of the lesson carefully as the rest of the class followed. The voices mingled with another lesson being given just a short distance away.
Space and resources are stretched, said Arulayah Thivyathevu, the school’s teacher. Students of different grade levels must attend class together and share one curriculum – an often difficult task. To support the school and enable classes to continue, UNICEF has provided furniture, teaching materials, plastic sheeting for class partitions and other resources.
A safe haven
For sisters Dhanushiha, 11, and Dilushana, 8, school provides stability and a safe haven. Their mother was raped and killed during the conflict, leaving them to fend for themselves with only limited help from neighbours.
“My sister does everything for me,” said Dilushana. “She washes my clothes, helps with the homework, combs my hair and helps me wash.”
Based on its long involvement with children in emergencies, UNICEF supports education as an essential source of stability in post-conflict situations. According to Brenda Haiplik, UNICEF Education Chief in Sri Lanka, education is also a key to enabling communities to re-build following a conflict.
“It brings peace, it brings stability in communities,” she said. “Children take home messages about hygiene, health and protection.”
Re-settled schools across Sri Lanka rely on the involvement of their communities to keep their doors open. At Thigilivaddai school, which was re-established one year ago, parents work in groups to clean and maintain the grounds.
Like many re-settled communities, the school has faced stigma from its new neighbours, said Rasiah Jeevaratnam, the school’s principal. But through the involvement of parents and the determination of students, normalcy is slowly returning.
“[Now] the children feel they can do anything,” said Mr. Jeevaratnam.