Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg

Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg
Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg © Gernot Keller, 2007
Blinkered Justice articles also appear on CrimeTalk and Government In The Lab

Thursday, 21 June 2012

A lesson in education from girl soldiers

Below is a piece I wrote for another forum. It takes in child soldiers, poverty, inequality, the Millennium Development Goals, and how a reconstituted idea of education might tackle such issues.

Nelson Mandela (c) South Africa The Good News

I was never an important person in my family but since I started the training and started working on friends’ hair at home and now making a little money to help my family, everyone now calls me ‘Aunty Mamy’; they listen to me now”.
This is how a 15 year old girl, and former child soldier from Liberia, has put her views on earning a living. For her, and others like her, her identity - and feelings of respect, independence and self-esteem - hinges on her earning power. 

Education helps many children achieve their potential across the world. But for child soldiers, education may serve as a reminder to what has gone on before, defining who they are, “Teachers are very judgemental of us on the basis of what we were involved in” . 

Nelson Mandela stated that “education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world”. Mandela was fighting an ideological war against apartheid and its institutionalised, racist educational system, when he made this statement; it is of its place and time. Rather than seeing education as a linear constant, taught in a top-down fashion, we need to look beyond Mandela's words to understand what education might mean, and for whom.

Nations such as Sierra Leone do not go war because of a lack of education. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee for Sierra Leone found that “it was years of bad governance, endemic corruption and the denial of basic human rights that created the deplorable conditions that made conflict inevitable”. Although this omits other factors, such as the unequal globalised economic playing field in which it was operating, Sierra Leone used to have a strong, well-run educational system.  It was not for want of education that Sierra Leone became one of the poorest countries. 

Key to Graca Machel’s landmark 1996 UN report “The impact of armed conflict on children” was education. It was envisaged as a primary component of the U.N.’s Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programmes in the reconstruction of post-conflict nations. 

Whilst the International Labour Office (ILO) report that many Liberian girl soldiers were happy to go back to school after disarmament and demobilisation, they were ill-prepared for what they encountered at the end of it – a lack of opportunities and jobs (sound familiar?). Consequently, girl soldiers resort to relying on a man to support them,  reinforcing stereotypical patriarchal views of women as dependant on men. 

Older Liberian students (c) USAID
"I was living with my commander [female] after the war. Then I got involved with this exfighter. I wanted to go to disarm but I became pregnant. I wanted to be with him so I didn’t go anymore. Now I’m living with him. I’m not going to school because I’m pregnant". 
Having a child alters girls soldiers' perception of themselves simply because being a mum is socially significant. In a battle between their multiple identities (girl v. soldier v. mum v. member of community etc.), many girls choose motherhood ahead of education because education does not afford them the same sense of self-worth, or equality with others.
"Most of my friends don’t know that I was fighting. I like to keep it that way. People don’t like ex-fighters. After the war I went living with my aunt, only she knows, but for the rest I don’t want them to know. If they know and something bad happens they will point at me, saying I did it". 
Stigmatisation, and a fear of stigmatisation, has been a major problem for DDR programmes. Just 4.2% of girl soldiers accessed DDR packages in Sierra Leone. But why should girls return to education when it offers little economic security and further gender insecurity?

If Western-structured education is failing children in DDR programmes globally, failing children of our former colonies, and yes, even failing our children in the UK, then perhaps we need to consider whether we are delivering the right type of education. 

Michael Wessels, a psychologist and professor at Columbia University says
“We don’t always do a very good job of listening to young people,”...“One of the questions that comes up in regard to girls is: Have we taken adequate time to understand what the girls’ view of reintegration is?”...
...“The goal is to put the power in the hands of girls; to have them go through a process wherein they organize themselves, define what reintegration means to them; ask what’s missing, and then design small actions and steps”...
This perspective places the emphasis on a bottom-up approach, by taking into account how a reintegration programme affects those it is supposed to help. As these girls' experiences are uniquely individual, future DDR programmes should reflect this diversity. In consultation with those running these programmes, girls can then use their own definitions of successful reintegration. 

Given its central role in reintegration, education might benefit from a similar re-think. Let us listen to the children we teach, and find out what they think about their educational systems. Let us understand how their lives outside of the classroom affects their learning, so that a future education takes on board the fact that we are all different. Children can then measure and define their own educational progress, alongside their teachers. 

Education may be the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world. We just have to harness its power, and tailor it so that everyone benefits from it. We can still meet the Millennium Development Goals for poverty and gender inequality, as long we learn from the lessons of girl soldiers.

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