UNICEF appeals for $7 m to reopen schools

The United Nations children's fund (UNICEF) has launched a US $7 million emergency appeal for Liberia to put 750,000 children back in school quickly and demobilise up to 15,000 child soldiers.

The money will also be used to fund and health and water supply programmes targetted at women and children.

Cyrille Niameogo, UNICEF Country Representative in Liberia, said the country's 14 years of civil war had displaced a million people - a third of its population. At the same time, 75 percent of Liberia's physical infrastructure had been destroyed, triggering a collapse of basic social services such as health and education.

In June and July, in the final stages of the war, all the country's remaining schools closed as rebel fighters battled their way into the capital Monrovia.

But even before then, the situation was already serious. UNICEF said over the past two years, only 51 percent of school-age children actually attended class.

Only 40 percent of Liberians can read or write and 74 percent of all women are illiterate.

UNICEF said $2.5 million from its latest appeal would support the first phase of a "Back to School" campaign. This aims to reopen a large number of schools in and around the capital Monrovia on 20 October. The funds would provide 750,000 children and 20,000 teachers in 3,700 primary and secondary schools with basic education supplies.

At the moment, UNICEF said, the drive to reopen schools was constrained by inadequate funding, continuing insecurity in some parts of the country and poor road conditions.

School buildings had suffered enormous damage in the war and many classrooms were still being used as temporary shelters by displaced people, UNICEF said. The Ministry of Education itself had been extensively looted of equipment and Liberian teachers have not been paid a government salary for two years.

However, UNICEF said the signing of a peace agreement last month, the deployment of 3,500 West African peacekeepers (ECOMIL) around the capital, Monrovia, the departure into exile former president Charles Taylor and plans to install a broad-based transitional government on 14 October, had raised prospects for peace.

Improved access to the interior, had meanwhile enabled relief agencies to identify urgent needs in water and sanitation, nutrition, and protection.

Around the northern town of Gbarnga in rebel-held Bong county, UNICEF said, the nutritional status of children had detoriarated seriously. Diseases that could be prevented through vaccination, such as measles were common, it added.

Together with various partners, UNICEF has already launched an emergency measles immunisation campaign and a drive to distribute vitamin A supplements to children in Tubmanburg, another rebel-held town, 50 km north of Monrovia.

In the water sector, UNICEF is currently trucking safe drinking water to camps housing displaced people in Monrovia and is helping to chlorinate wells in the city.
Now it plans to test the water quality of wells in Grand Cape Mount and Gbarpolu Counties in northwestern Liberia.

The agency, which coordinates the overall child protection response in Liberia, said it is also pressing for the early demobilisation of child soldiers. Relief agencies estimate there are up to 15,000 combatants below the age of 18 in government and rebel militias.

UNICEF appealed for $12.7 million to support its programmes in Liberia earlier this year, but has so far received only $4.1 million.