COTE D IVOIRE: Children's plight worsened by lingering conflict (28 December 2005)

Summary: West Africa's one-time oasis of stability, split in two in 2002, is slogging along ever since in a state of 'no war, no peace. The conflict forced 700,000 children to abandon their studies, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).


[ABIDJAN, 28 December 2005] - Twelve-year-old Monique Yao lost her father to war, as well as her seat in the classroom. Her mother hopes to help her reclaim the latter some day soon. "I asked for help from people, but I could not come up with enough money and she was dismissed," Dame Sophie Yao says, seated next to the table where she sells fruit and attieke, a cassava-based favourite dish.

She says she might be able to come up with enough money to put Monique back in school soon, but the young girl would have to split her time between studying and working with her mother in the market to keep the family afloat.

Monique sells fruit at their street stall daily until 10 pm, when she returns to what was to be a temporary home, where she, her mother and her three-year-old brother have lived since they fled fighting in western Cote d'Ivoire three years ago. Monique's father was killed as rebels and government forces wrestled for control of the Yaos' hometown of Man.

The young girl represents the increasingly tough plight children face in Cote d'Ivoire - West Africa's one-time oasis of stability, split in two in 2002 and slogging along ever since in a state of 'no war, no peace.'

The conflict forced 700,000 children to abandon their studies, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

"Thousands of children are up against poverty, abandonment, lack of education, malnutrition, negligence and vulnerability," Youssouf Oomar, UNICEF representative in Cote d'Ivoire said last week on the release of the agency's annual report on the state of the world's children.

Cote d'Ivoire ranks among the 15 countries with the highest under-five mortality rates in the world, the UNICEF report says, and is one of the few countries where child mortality is on the rise.

The rate climbed to 194 deaths per thousand children under five in 2004, from 157 deaths per thousand in 1990.

UNICEF puts armed conflict among the greatest threats to childhood worldwide, along with poverty and HIV/AIDS.

Armed conflict exposes children to exploitation as combatants or sex workers, guts basic infrastructure, and devastates primary education, the report says. Most often, UNICEF says, children are among the most vulnerable when conflict precludes essential services like health and protection.

For Cote d'Ivoire's children, Oomar said, "Day in and day out life is a fight for survival."

Survival for 14-year-old Ousmane Kone and his family rests partly in the hands of motorists he urges to buy packets of Kleenex at a bustling roundabout in Abidjan's Abobo neighbourhood.

Beads of sweat on his forehead, in his tattered knee-length T-shirt Kone runs non-stop from car to car amid the roundabout's nearly permanent traffic jam.

"If I don't sell a package of 15 by the evening, there won?t be enough money for the family's needs, and it will be my fault," he said.

If he is lucky enough to find buyers for all 15 packets, Ousmane brings 500 CFA francs, or a little less than one US dollar, home to his family.

Ever since Kone's father - a craftsman - lost all his tools in arson fires during unrest in Abidjan, Ousmane and his 12-year-old sister, Kady, must work to help make ends meet.

Kady washes dishes for her aunt who sells alloco - fried plantain - another Ivorian favourite.

Sometimes it is the children's income alone that allows the family to buy the day's meal, Ousmane says.

Ousmane did not attend primary school - only a few years of Koranic school. He hopes to train as a mechanic one day.

Some students in the rebel-held north who have gone to school are wondering whether they're any better off for it.

National exams have not been held in the north in over two years, leaving some 60,000 students in limbo. Without their end-of-year diplomas, their studies will have been in vain.

The UN has repeatedly called on the Ivorian government to get the education system back on track.

In a statement earlier this year UNICEF said the blockage "not only threatens [children's] educational development, but also their physical safety: thousands of children who should be studying and writing for exams are out on the streets with no certainty of their future."

The situation also breeds resentment and potential violence among youth - an explosive element in a country whose condition is already fragile, UNICEF warned.



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