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Using the classroom to fight for peace

By Charo Quesada

When war, natural disasters, economic crises or violence afflict a society, the education system is usually one of the first institutions to fall into disarray. Yet case after case has shown that in the wake of these disturbances, the presence and continuity of educational programs is crucial to rebuilding the social fabric.

Women and children usually suffer the most from social upheavals. But what does a country like El Salvador do with ex-guerrillas or ex-government soldiers? How should Guatemala or Peru deal with residents of indigenous areas who have been traumatized by decades of violence? How should Colombia handle the millions of people who have been displaced by armed conflict? What did Vietnam and Cambodia do with children during the postwar years?

In “From Bullets to Blackboards,” published by the IDB in 2005, editors Emily Vargas-Barón and Hernando Bernal Alarcón provide answers to some of these questions. Effective education, they say, is essential to preparing new, post-conflict generations for a productive life, to heal wounds, prevent a resurgence of violence and achieve true peace. If the educational needs of the population during and after a crisis are ignored, they warn, the conditions that led to the conflict in the first place will be perpetuated.

Implementing these types of programs in the midst of conflict is complex but not impossible, as the book’s examples show. A comprehensive effort is required to address the after-effects of armed confrontations, abuse by political regimes, and the isolation and abandonment of remote communities. In addition to training in basic literacy and skills necessary for finding employment, people need training in such areas as self-esteem, dialogue, conflict resolution, learning by consensus and basic human rights. The uncertain future of populations affected by violence should not get in the way of starting up long-term programs.

El Salvador and educational reform. In 1992, after 12 years of armed conflict and two powerful earthquakes, El Salvador made educational reform a national priority as part of the peace accords. Participation, dialogue and national consensus were key to the program’s subsequent success, as were incorporation of long-term objectives, flexibility and decentralization. Investment in education rose from 1.8 percent of GDP at the beginning of the 1990s to some 3 percent in the year 2000.

Vietnam and children. The universal education [policy] adopted by Vietnam in 1990 relied on a creative strategy for meeting the needs of children belonging to war-isolated ethnic groups. The government introduced the Multigrade Teaching Program, setting up one- or two-room schools that offered comprehensive education to children of various ages, with teachers trained for that purpose. Today, students in these schools have reached achievement levels comparable to those of students in the rest of the country. Moreover, participation by girls has increased dramatically because the schools are close to where their families live.

El Salvador and ex-combatants. In 1992, some 30,000 ex-government soldiers and ex-guerrillas were reincorporated into civil society. Many were illiterate, and the only way they knew how to interact with society was through violence and hierarchical relationships. They were aggressive, distrustful, and prone to infighting and extremism. The ex-government soldiers recovered more quickly than the ex-guerrillas, because the latter had experienced more conflicts among their various factions. Also, the ex-guerrillas had been left to their own devices, which contributed to the rise in crime and to social malaise. When the Program for the Reintegration and Employment of Ex-Combatants was launched in 1993, 70 percent of the applicants were former guerrillas, and 60 percent were women. As part of the program, 225 women ex-combatants learned to read and write. They also received training in health services or dressmaking and tailoring, as well as empowerment, tolerance, responsibility, fairness and conflict resolution.

Peru and human rights. Decades of political violence forced Peruvians into a culture of fear and violence that led them to accept authoritarian conditions, as well as engendering a lack of respect toward the government and institutions. In 1996, Peru’s Institute for Education in Human Rights and Peace launched the Program to Train Community Leaders in Human Rights in order to train leaders in democracy and public participation. These leaders would in turn promote human rights throughout the country. The program has taught 2,269 community leaders about the value of democracy and about mechanisms for protecting human rights in Peru.

Colombia: laboratories for peace. A program run by the University of Ibagué, in the Department of Tolima, has created an environment of social coexistence in a region that had been devastated by violence and extreme poverty. Colombia’s most powerful guerrilla group—the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (or FARC, its Spanish acronym)—was founded in this department, which is home to 1.4 million people. The FARC or other guerrilla or paramilitary factions control 70 percent of Tolima, and restrictions on movement among local residents have hurt health services and education. Approximately 66 percent of Tolima’s population lives in poverty or extreme poverty, and 56 percent of its mayors have received death threats. In order to reduce unemployment, illiteracy and problems caused by displacement and the conflict, the university launched the Social Development Program in 1993, using new virtual technologies to train residents in labor, management and business-related matters. The program also provides training in conflict resolution, and classes for children and adults in displaced families. The program has graduated 4,995 students, while an additional 2,594 took literacy courses and 325 adults were trained in conflict resolution. Several microenterprises were created as well.

Guatemala: to prosper, be bilingual. Applying the principle that bilingual education is a bridge that can integrate ethnic groups into post-conflict societies and preserve their cultural heritage, the Mayan Community Literacy Project (COMAL, its acronym in Spanish) offered bilingual education to 35,560 young Mayan women from 1999 through 2002. All the participants were taught to read and write, weave, plant gardens and educate their children. Improving their knowledge of their native language served as a foundation for beginning to study their second language. The women learned to solve problems, obtain information, and participate in community development.

The examples cited in this study emphasize the importance of crisis intervention, and also show that these activities can be entrusted to local staff teams, which are likely to be more accepted and less expensive than outside groups. The authors also recommend that programs be offered to geographical areas that include all populations requiring help. Finally, they put us on notice that conflicts do not end when peace agreements are signed, and they highlight the importance of international aid to enable these types of programs to survive over the long term.