In the Republic of Congo, the gap in access to education and schooling between indigenous populations and other population groups remains a huge challenge. In some parts of the country, up to 65% of indigenous children of primary school age are not in school.
Extreme poverty, social exclusion, lack of birth registration, and ethnic and cultural discrimination in schools all contribute to educational inequalities that threaten the prospects of several generations.
The United Nations agencies in the Republic of Congo, direct recipients of the Joint SDG Fund - the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Food Programme (WFP) and United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) - in conjunction with the other agencies, have joined forces to improve access to education and other basic social services for the indigenous populations of Lékoumou. This department, located in southern Congo, is home to nearly 25% of the country's indigenous population.
Food is one of the factors that cause indigenous children to drop out of school. WFP's school feeding programme provides daily hot meals to more than 13,000 children - of these, 1,183 are indigenous - in 23 schools in Lékoumou. This essential safety net helps to increase school enrolment and retention rates, improve children's listening skills in the classroom, and improve their food and nutritional status.
“Before the project, there were fewer indigenous children attending school and they did not come every day. Many of them did not have the resources to buy food. It's impossible to arrive around 6:00 - 6:30 and leave in the afternoon without eating!” explains Boris Edebe Martial, President of the Makoubi Parents Teacher Association.
The Makoubi school consists of 300 primary school children - one third of them indigenous - who are provided with a nutritious meal cooked by the Bantu and indigenous mothers of the children every day.
The children are happy and are getting enough to eat. Those who were still in the forest are now going to school because they know there is food. There are many of them.” adds Blanche Tsouari, a volunteer cook from the indigenous population who has two children attending the school.
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The necessity of acquiring school uniforms and materials is often a major barrier to schooling for the most vulnerable children. By providing school supply kits, UNICEF ensured that vulnerable children were able to attend school and learn in better conditions. Under the Joint SDG Fund project, 4,350 school supply kits have been distributed over two school years (2020-2021 and 2021-2022).
"We didn't go to school because we didn't have notebooks and bags. I now come to school because I also want to become someone, I want to become a Minister," says Boueni Fallone, 10, an indigenous fourth grader.
Unregistered children are legally invisible and are thus deprived of the basic right to legally exist in society. It limits their access to education and other basic social services. In the Republic of Congo, it is estimated that one in two indigenous children lacks civil status documents. In partnership with the Departmental Directorate of Social Affairs of Lékoumou, UNICEF established 17 protection committees in the five districts of the department. As a result, 3,722 children have received their birth certificates, giving them not only an identity, but also and above all enabling them to exercise their fundamental rights. As part of this joint programme, 1,223 children, including 576 girls, were enrolled in the first year of primary school over the past two school years as part of the back-to-school campaigns.
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The lack of financial resources available to indigenous families is an additional obstacle in accessing education. To sustainably improve the living conditions of the department's indigenous populations and other vulnerable groups, the project includes an “income-generating activities” component. WFP strengthened the production capacities of 25 agricultural cooperatives (rice, maize, cassava, groundnuts, fish farming, palm oil production) established in the 5 districts of Lékoumou and supported 30 vulnerable women in fish processing.
These small-scale farmers, both indigenous and vulnerable Bantu, were organised into groups, trained, equipped, and provided with seeds or fish fry, thereby increasing their production and ultimately their income, while improving their food security.
"We are happy because we got machetes and equipment. The sale of what we harvest allows us to have money to send our children to school." says Germaine Pembe, president of a farming group in Mikamba.
These activities are part of a joint programme to improve access to social protection for indigenous populations in the Lékoumou department. It is implemented by WHO, WFP and UNICEF in support of the Congolese government, UN Joint SDG Fund is operated with contributions from the following donors, European Union and Governments of Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland.
The project also improves access to essential health services for indigenous populations by strengthening the capacities of 24 health workers and 34 community leaders and by providing 23 integrated health centres in Lékoumou with equipment, nutritional inputs and essential medicines. 7,300 children and 4,800 pregnant and breastfeeding women were treated for malnutrition, through consultations in the centres and the implementation of mobile strategies in the communities.