Go to school or go to jail

Seven-year-old Assatou has been selling grilled plantains at a busy junction on the outskirts of the Liberian capital, Monrovia, for two years. "My family can't afford to send me to school," she says with a sigh. “So I learned how to cook plantain instead."

Under a new education policy, parents or guardians of children like Assatou will soon face fines or even be arrested for allowing their children to sell in the streets during school hours. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in early September announced the measure, which is said to be aimed at increasing school enrolment and curbing child labour.

However, the announcement is drawing criticism from local rights activists.

"We're not satisfied with the new [measure],” Joseph Harris of the Liberian children's rights group FOCUS told IRIN. "Imposing fines or arresting guardians is not the way to handle the problem of children working on the streets... The issue is due to complex economic and social factors. It needs to be solved rather than put under the carpet."

Parents say they would much rather put their children in school than to work, but they have no choice.

The Education Ministry says the policy, which will be phased in gradually beginning with the coming academic year, is intended in part to reduce child trafficking. Children are lured from the counties to Monrovia on the promise of education only to wind up as hawkers on street corners.

"Children are not breadwinners," said Hawa Gol Kotchi, deputy minister of education for information. "They should be in school, not working on the street."

Gol Kotchi said the move was part of a drive to meet a Millennium Development Goal to have all children enrolled in school by 2015. "It's based on common sense. We noticed a large number of children working on the street, and this is a good way to get them into school."

Compulsory but not free?

However, implementing the new policy is likely to prove difficult, particularly given that Liberia’s justice system is weak.

"Once the new law comes into force, the police will have to launch a mechanism to inform children and their parents why they are being arrested," Alvin Jask Kanneh, deputy commissioner of the Liberian National Police, told IRIN.

“And of course there is the issue of clashes with the police. Parents may refuse to comply," he said.

He added: "Many children don't know their age or don't have birth certificates. That will be another hurdle in the process.”

Liberia's much-hyped Free and Compulsory Education legislation – supposed to enable every child aged 5 to 11 to attend school free of charge – has been on the books since 2004, but is yet to be fully implemented.


Photo: Kate Thomas/IRIN
Children in a private school in Monrovia

Local human rights groups say the measure to punish non-school-attendance would be premature. In parts of Monrovia there are not enough classrooms for every school-age child so many parents are forced to pay as much as US$200 a year to send their children to private elementary schools, and they also have to buy uniforms, books and pens.

A police officer in Liberia can make $150 a month, a vegetable vendor up to $30. Unemployment stands at about 80 percent.

Mixed views

The rights group FOCUS said that unless the government measures were backed by practical action to provide free education for all children, the move would backfire. "Parents do not take pleasure in reducing their children to perpetual peddlers,” FOCUS said in a statement in Liberia’s The Analyst newspaper. “It is a measure of poverty and desperation."

Charlotte Kaicora, the headmistress of a private school in downtown Monrovia, said she believed many parents would resist. "Most of the children selling on the street on behalf of their parents are in low economic groups... Whether it can be implemented… I don’t know."

Her view was echoed by a group of women gathered at the busy ELW junction on the outskirts of Monrovia. "I want to send my daughter to school but I don't have the money," Lauren Jalloh, who makes around US$20 a month selling fruit and vegetables, told IRIN.

David M. Johnson, a father of four, also said Liberians were not ready for such dramatic measures. "Everyone wants their children to be able to go to school,” he said. “But until the state can provide free tuition for everyone it will be impossible."

Many children cheered when they heard the new government announcement. "If we don't go to school, we don't learn,” 12-year-old Patience told IRIN.

Some children, such as 10-year-old James, have to compromise. He works in the mornings and attends school in the afternoons.

Mohammed Kamara, a taxi driver, said having children in school would be good in another way. "Children make money by wandering among cars selling chocolate, sweets and water. But children are so small, and truck drivers don't always see them… there are many terrible accidents on the streets."

The Education Ministry’s Gol Kotchi said officials are under no illusions about the difficulties of implementing the new measure, emphasising that it would not take effect immediately. "We're not going to collect all the children working on the street right this minute," she said.

"We're slowly doing more assessments and renovating our teacher training institutions,” she said. “These are all measures we are taking in preparation for a full-scale free and compulsory education system.”

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