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'Needed': Education in Emergencies policy for Manipur type conflict; schools as peace zones

Counterview Desk 

The Right to Education (RTE) Forum has regretted that Manipur’s children have been grossly affected during the recent violence in Manipur. During the ongoing Supreme Court hearings, it was argued that 200 schools in tribal areas in Manipur were closed in the early stages. Some schools have been burned or damaged. Sources suggest that 11 schools may have been burned down in Sugnu, it said in a submission to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education.
Seeking immediate attention towards the rights of children and to ensure a greater focus on ensuring normalcy and continuity in their education, it asserted that education is a constitutional right of every Indian child. The Centre and all State governments, including Manipur, should have a policy for ‘Education in Emergencies’ to ensure uninterrupted education and safety and security to each child in India, Gautam Bandyopadhyay, national convenor, RTE Forum, insisted.
In times of conflict, RTE Forum said, children are often the silent victims. Many have been orphaned in the ongoing violence and are slowly being accommodated in childcare homes. Fear has prevented many parents from sending their children to schools as instances of violence near schools have amplified concerns regarding safety. However, in many instances, brave teachers have taken steps to protect their students.
Anjela Taneja, co-convener of RTE Forum, added, there are many heroes and sheroes who protected schools during the peak of the conflict. The education department in Manipur has attempted to fast-track the restoration of displaced children to education. Manipur needs to start to plan beyond the immediate, but also address the long-term impact of this conflict.

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As schools reopen in the state, the RTE Forum reiterates the imperative to look at the challenges that children, both in the valley and the hills, have faced since the start of the conflict and highlights some areas for immediate and long-term action.
The Forum stands in solidarity with the children of Manipur who have been subject to the impact of the conflict and watched their schools close down, families being displaced, houses being burnt, witness rape, torture and assault.

The RTE Forum’s concerns

In times of conflict, children are often the silent victims. They have faced unprecedented trauma during the crisis and more robust efforts are needed to support them to not only cope with the immediate impact of the conflict but also to build back better. Many have been orphaned in the ongoing violence and are slowly being given space in childcare homes.
Schools are not only sites of learning but also critical to protect children from physical dangers, offering psychosocial support and giving children stability and structure to help them cope with the trauma they experience every day. We are concerned about the number of attacks on schools during this crisis. Schools should be recognized as zones of peace. While the government has attempted to restore education, it is critical to ensure that the education system is prepared for the long run to deal with the aftermath of the conflict.

Status of education in Manipur during the conflict

Schools have reopened for classes 9-12 after two months’ closure last week and classes 1-8 resumed on 5th July. However, attendance has been low after reopening especially in Churachandpur where violence has been high . In some instances, schools could not reopen since staff was unable to rejoin work for fear of their safety . Fear has prevented many parents from sending their children to schools as instances of violence near schools have amplified concerns. In other areas, schools are reported to be facing a shortage of supplies and teachers, especially in areas where large numbers of displaced children have been admitted.
Furthermore, government sources state that around 100 schools are closed for a range of issues; this includes 72 schools serving classes 1-8 and a further 28 serving classes 9-12. Some schools function as relief camps, others are occupied by security personnel, some have been vandalised and others are in sensitive areas. The highest number of such schools is in Churachandpur, followed by Bishnupur, Kakching, Kangpokpi and Imphal East districts; in July, it was reported that approximately, one in six schools in Churachandupur remained closed. However, it has been argued that the number of schools remaining closed may be higher, particularly in areas which remain tense. Thus, it has been argued during the ongoing Supreme Court hearings that 200 schools in tribal areas may be closed.
Additionally, some schools have been burned or damaged with reports highlighting incidents as recently as 22nd July . Some sources suggest that it is possible that 11 schools have been burned down in Sugnu. One example is reported to be the Mount Olive School at Kangvai bazar in Churachandpur district which was burnt down during the clashes in May. The school had over 1,000 students from both Kuki and Meitei communities.
It is reported that 15,203 displaced children are staying in relief camps across the state; of these 14,297 are reported to have been enrolled in nearby schools. Displaced children from Manipur are also enrolled in schools in other states, including adjoining states like Mizoram and far-off ones like Kerala. The government has reported that 93.5 per cent of the displaced students have been readmitted to “the nearest feasible school free of cost” and the requirement of permission for students of class IX to class XII opting to change school has been relaxed for those affected by the violence. Teachers in schools receiving displaced students have reported that the task is complicated as while students are still dealing with the impact of the trauma; linguistic differences and differences in the curricula practised in different districts pose more challenges .
Other estimates suggest that the number of children out of school may be higher. Children who have fled their homes have lost access to books, learning materials and key documents that they fear they will need for subsequent admissions in higher education, particularly outside the state. This, along with the internet ban and the overall psychological trauma has disrupted the education of students, particularly those due to have examinations. In many instances, students have lost documents necessary for admission to higher education institutions and are concerned about their capacity to prepare for Board examinations.
The violence has left a deep psychological impact on the mental health of students. While some schools have tried to provide support to students, trained professionals and facilities are not available to deal with the scale of the problem. The government has established mental help support centres for displaced women and children and grievance redress helplines for people in relief camps have been established and 400 officials deputed to monitor the camps; steps have also been taken to reunite separated children and their parents. However, more needs to be done, particularly for children who have been orphaned or without accompanying adults.
The state needs more systematic efforts that help children not only deal with the immediate trauma but also recover from the blow to their education in the medium and long run. It has been established that "education is also one of the best tools for investing in peace, stability, and economic growth” . The education system in the state needs to respond to build mutual understanding and solidarity and build social cohesion.
Amidst the horror, the RTE Forum salutes the brave interventions by principals, teachers and other education personnel to protect their students. This includes a female principal who protected her wards with a sword until they were taken to safety and a Meitei teacher who carried a 6-year-old Kuki boy on his back and saved the lives of 30 children.

The RTE Forum’s recommendations

While the Manipur government has taken immediate actions to respond to the immediate educational needs of students, further steps are needed keeping in mind the recovery from the conflict situation.
The RTE Forum recommends the following immediate actions:
  1. Upscale efforts to provide psychosocial interventions and counselling for students and families to ease the trauma.
  2. Strengthen training, sensitization and counselling for educators in the state to enable them to respond to their own trauma and enable them to respond to the needs of their students.
  3. All parties should cease attacks on educational institutions and commit to ensuring that schools remain zones of peace. Protocols must be put in place to ensure the safe evacuation of students in cases of violence, particularly in residential schools.
  4. Immediately vacate schools used for camps to house refugees or other purposes to enable the resumption of education; find alternative spaces and accommodate affected families to enable the resumption of education.
  5. Facilitate processes of writing exams for displaced students to enable them to continue their education, including those preparing for Board examinations.
  6. Put in place a process for obtaining duplicate certificates for those who have lost access to the same.
  7. Increase the distribution of educational materials and other supplies for displaced students, particularly those residing in camps to ensure a speedy return to normalcy. At the same time, ensure conditions of dignity in relief camps. Ensure uninterrupted supply of mid-day meals, sanitary napkins, and health and hygiene facilities through schools.
  8. Create registers for children in schools/relief camps to ensure they do not go missing, are safe and under care.
  9. Allow school-going students who are also caring for their younger siblings, to bring them to school daily. Provide temporary childcare facilities within the school building for young children not enrolled in the school.
  10. Activate VLCPCs, Village Councils and local Panchayats with the help of civil society groups, women’s groups and youth to ensure that all children, especially girls, are protected while accessing public spaces and schools, no children are missing, and all out-of-school children are enrolled back in school. Involve parents in efforts at every step to both enable them to recover from the trauma and offer support to teachers in providing care and resuming education.
  11. In places where it is possible, ensure communication between teachers and schoolchildren through telephone calls and home visits.
  12. Identify, protect and place children found without caregivers and parents in childcare homes.
  13. Use digital and mass media to promote messages of peace and resilience with content addressing trauma experienced by children.
While the current response is focused on addressing the immediate needs of affected communities, it may be time to start planning for the long run, particularly in localities which have received large numbers of displaced populations in the event that this turns into a protracted crisis. Education will play a critical role in ensuring a return to normalcy. Schools can, with the right support, promote peace and provide physical and psychosocial protection for students. Hence, a stronger focus is needed on how education can contribute to the process of peace building. The long terms response and plans from the government should include:
  1. Future attacks on schools need to be monitored including tracking the number of instructional days lost through the same. It should work with all parties to commit to ensuring that schools remain zones of peace should be imperative.
  2. Assess the impact of damage to school infrastructure in each district. A clear commitment is needed to ensure not only to repair but to improve schools and make them safer and more inclusive to all students and educators. Ensure extra funds are allocated to rebuild schools that have been burnt to the ground and for rebuilding the infrastructure of schools that are damaged.
  3. Make arrangements for alternative arrangements to house displaced persons during disaster situations to ensure that schooling is not disrupted in emergency situations.
  4. Improve understanding of students in areas experiencing influx and outflow of students to ensure deployment of teachers in areas experiencing shortages. This should take into consideration the linguistic background of students to ensure mother tongue education for young students in line with the provisions of the National Education Policy.
  5. Ensure planning and fund allocation to training teachers to enable them to respond to the trauma faced by children.
  6. Ensure that anti-trafficking units and child protection structures at the village level are functional so that vulnerable children do not go missing or are trafficked.
  7. Provide scholarships and cash transfers to girls and vulnerable children to help retain them in school.
  8. Ensure rehabilitation of orphan children and those without accompanying adults in refugee camps to ensure their access to education.
  9. Develop SOPs/Comprehensive School Safety guidelines and ensure capacity building of education personnel on the same. Build a strong campaign on school safety.
The RTE forum calls upon the state and central government and all other stakeholders to ensure schools are 'peace zones', teachers are facilitated to run schools and all children are supported to cope with the trauma and pick up learning. All concerned government bodies, including the NCPCR and the Parliamentary Standing Committee, should take note of the prevailing educational challenges in the State.

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