When Sabah Ismail Ali, a social worker in Somalia's self-declared republic of Somaliland, first started working with children, truancy and aggression were common, especially among children from families with problems such as extreme poverty and displacement.
"I started off as a child protection officer, then I later trained as a psycho-social worker, qualifying by December 2007. I realized right from the start that many children who showed aggression were being caned by teachers who had no idea of the social problems such children were dealing with," Ali told IRIN.
In efforts to help children from difficult backgrounds deal with psycho-social issues, a local NGO, the Comprehensive Community-Based Rehabilitation in Somaliland (CCBRS) partnered a Ugandan NGO, the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) in mid-2009 and, with funding from the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), introduced social clubs in four schools where the majority of the students were from displaced families.
Ali, who was involved in the project from its initial stages, told IRIN: "Before the clubs were set up, we first approached the Ministry of Education to explain what we wanted to do, then we identified the schools. We then met the schools' administrators and some of the teachers and explained our mission.
"We started by training the teachers in various aspects of providing psycho-social support and how to counsel children facing social problems."
Three types of clubs were then introduced to pupils aged 10 and above in the four identified schools: the environmental and sanitation club; culture, sports and arts club, and the awareness-raising club. At least 60 pupils (30 boys and 30 girls) belong to each club in the four schools: Guryasamo Intermediate School, Fadumo Bihi Primary and Intermediate School, Mohamed Moge Primary and Intermediate School and Ahmed Gurey Primary and Intermediate School.
"Soon, clubs became operational and we started seeing a reduction in the number of pupils who would be caned by teachers for truancy," Ali said.
In the past, if a child misbehaved in class, teachers would punish them with detention, canning or suspension, which led to many children dropping out of school. "Previously, children would drop out of school without anyone understanding why, but with the introduction of the clubs and the training of teachers as counsellors, these cases have also reduced because teachers now know how to handle children with social and psycho-social problems."
Since most of the children are from poor and displaced families, Ali said, the truancy could at times be because they had not had a good meal in a while, "so a good thing has come out of the clubs because with this understanding, some schools are now even waiving their fees for the poor pupils who cannot even afford to have breakfast in their homes.
"With these clubs, what stands out for me is not only the reduction in school dropouts but the improved teacher-student relationship; pupils now have the confidence to come up to a teacher and explain a problem; this is something they could not do before," Ali said.
She added that the clubs had become so popular that schools and parents were urging CCBRS to introduce them in other schools so that more children could benefit.
Fighting corporal punishment
Abib Ahmed Hirsi, the CCBRS programme officer, said the NGO would assess the impact the clubs had had on the children's social development a year after they were introduced in the four schools.
"Part of the clubs' activities is to discourage use of corporal punishment; sometimes we have awareness-raising weeks which we label 'Week without sticks' or 'No sticks, schools free from sticks'," Hirsi said.
Ettie Higgins, head of UNICEF in Hargeisa, told IRIN the agency's goal in creating child-friendly spaces and school clubs was to foster participation and to promote the psycho-social wellbeing of children from marginalized communities.
"UNICEF seeks to promote both the physical and the psycho-socio-emotional health of the child, guaranteeing a safe and protective space for learning," she said. "This programme has directly benefited approximately 2,500 school-children."
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