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OPINION June 8, 2022

Strengthening the Social Contract: Working towards safer and more inclusive schooling in Democratic Republic of Congo

As a parent, I have repeatedly watched in horror and deeply empathized with the families of victims of gun violence affecting schools in the United States. As a father of two daughters, I also find it heart-wrenching to know that girls are currently deprived of their potential and barred from going to school in Afghanistan. An unexpected bright spot for me last week was a visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where a grievance redressal approach, based on a call center named “Allo Ecole,” is part of a wave of reforms making it possible for more children to attend primary school free of cost and in a safer environment than in the past.  

In 2019, the government of DRC rolled out an ambitious free primary education program. Abolishing school fees has expanded primary school enrollment to 3 million more children, including many girls in rural areas who were previously left out. It is also paving the way for greater accountability and trust between the state and its citizens and thereby forging a new social contract.

Through a $800-million perform-based IDA financing package, the World Bank is helping the government partly shoulder the costs of free primary education to lessen the burden on families. Until recently, public schools charged parents roughly $100 a year per child – on top of textbooks, school uniforms and other costs – an amount that was out of reach for poor families in a country where 73% of the population lives on less than $1.90 a day.

More importantly perhaps, the project is helping put in place systemic changes that could benefit generations of children to come.

The project’s social safeguards and disbursement linked indicators are putting in place fundamentals towards safer and more and inclusive schools – schools where both girls and boys are able to learn.

The “Allo Ecole” grievance redress mechanism is one of several innovations that underpin that vision. The free hotline (dial 178) was piloted in 2018 but is now functional and accessible nationwide. When it was inaugurated in its new configuration, the hotline received 1,200 complaints and queries in the first week.

Some of the grievances are important but non-sensitive, lodged for example by teachers who have not been paid. Others are highly sensitive – mothers and girls reporting that a teacher has sexually abused a child - and treated with the urgency and confidentiality those types of complaints deserve. An investigation is carried out, and survivors receive socio-psychological and medical support as needed; any legal actions are taken in ways that protect the identity of the victim so that they are not stigmatized. The cases that are emerging are painful to hear – every instance of sexual assault is one too many. Gender-based violence wreaks havoc with its survivors and holds the country back. But the reporting of these cases and the actions that follow are vital first steps toward making schools safer for girls.

For the first time, as a condition of their employment, all teachers must commit to follow a Code of Good Conduct that includes clear definitions of prohibited behavior pertaining to sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment, and also lays out sanctions.  Following a massive communications and social mobilization campaign, over 300,000 copies of the code have already been signed.  Focal points in all the administrative districts and the 20,000 primary schools in the project provinces have been appointed and are being trained to handle complaints related to gender-based violence. The project is also working to generalize the recruitment of primary teachers and school directors based on merit, to improve the quality of education services delivered by the state.  Furthermore, the project supports the government’s efforts to bring practicing teachers onto the payroll, which thus far has resulted in roughly 60,000 more primary teachers receiving a salary, thereby alleviating the financial burden of nearly two million poor households.

Pragmatic but ambitious systemic change in primary education has been a powerful driver in the improvement of learning outcomes in many countries, and I’m comforted that DRC is tackling thorny issues to decrease its learning poverty and provide education work for all. Undoubtedly, it will take more than a call center to put an end to the scourge of gender-based violence, but changing norms and facing challenges head on to protect school children is a good place to start.