Practicum Spotlight: Lina S. Rojas, MPH '16

As the number of children being abducted and forced to serve as solders in conflict zones increased in the late 1980s and 90s, the global community took notice. At the United Nations (UN), members unanimously passed Resolution 1612 to monitor this and other grave violations against children affected by war. By documenting and publicizing these crimes in annual reports, the UN hoped to spur necessary action.

To gather this evidence, the UN established a Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM) to be implemented by country-level teams. Today, the UN tracks six violations against children (see Box), including one that focuses on attacks that prevent children from going to school. 

The Six Grave Violations

  • Killing and maiming of children
  • Recruitment or use of children as soldiers
  • Sexual violence against children
  • Attacks against schools or hospitals
  • Denial of humanitarian access for children
  • Abduction of children

“Research has shown that education is protective,” explained Lina S. Rojas, a second-year MPH student, currently pursuing the PopFam Program on Forced Migration and Health’s (PFMH) Certificate in Public Health and Humanitarian Assistance. “[Education] structures children’s lives. It keeps them from feeling the effects of other things that might be negative in their world, and, for girls, it helps them get married later in life. When children lose access to education, it’s serious.”

Despite its serious consequences, attacks on education are under-addressed. While other grave violations against children, such as recruitment of child soldiers or rape, tend to attract attention, attacks on education seem easier to ignore, Lina observed. A recent study conducted by PFMH examined efforts to track attacks on education in parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Somalia. The researchers found far higher numbers of attacks than had previously documented by the UN.

Prompted by these findings, and seeking to further illuminate this issue, Lina spent six weeks this past summer working with recent PopFam graduate Elburg van Boetzelaer to investigate efforts to document attacks on education in the DRC’s North Kivu province. They aimed to assess the effectiveness of these efforts, determine the veracity of reported incidents, and identify avenues for improving surveillance.

Partnering with Rebuild Hope for Africa, a local NGO, Lina and Elburg began their project by interviewing 35 organizations based in Goma, the capital of North Kivu, including government and UN agencies, civil society organizations, and representatives of religious groups that operate schools in this province.

“These informants told us about 113 incidents where schools were being targeted,” Lina recounted. She and Elburg then set out to verify approximately 20 percent of these incidents by visiting 23 schools in North Kivu. “We had to consider that some places were not safe to go to,” Lina recalled, adding that she and Elburg each traveled with a representative of the local NGO to approximately 10 schools.

“We would get to these schools and find the director or a teacher and tell them that we were doing research on the quality of education in their area,” Lina explained. As part of this general discussion, Lina said, they would ask if anything had happened during the study’s time frame that had disrupted school.

Of the 23 schools chosen for verification, on-site informants confirmed 19 reports, or 83 percent of the incidents that had been described in Goma. These results were startling. “We confirmed, in just one province, about as many attacks as the UN system had found in all of the Congo, which is massive,” Lina noted. Clearly, she observed, “the MRM, which people are counting on to monitor the abuse and grave violations committed against children, is not really working.”

As to why such information was “getting lost,” Lina said there appeared to be a variety of factors at play, from a lack of awareness of the MRM mechanism among key stakeholders, to fears about reporting the violations. One of the most striking findings from the research, Lina said, was the lack of any obvious benefit for anyone, from the NGO workers to the teachers and other professionals working in the schools, to report such incidents.

“People said to us, ‘We put ourselves at risk to report to the coordinators of schools in Goma but nothing happens, no one comes and fixes the wall that was knocked down.’” To the contrary, she added, many people feared repercussions for doing so. “We spoke with people who were working with local NGOs to recover kids who had been taken [to be soldiers], and while they had learned of many violations of resolution 1612…they felt their work would be most effective if they stayed neutral and did not report those incidents,” Lina said.

Lina and Elburg collaborated on a report detailing their findings, along with recommendations for improving current surveillance efforts—part of a larger case that has been emerging from similar investigations of attacks on education, and which should challenge the UN to improve its process for documenting these violations.

Lina is now back at Mailman engaged in the second and final year of her MPH program and determined to savor the experience, which, she says, has exceeded her highest expectations. “All of our classes, whether they are focused on water and sanitation, food and nutrition, or gender-based violence, are targeted specifically to ensure that we will know what to do to improve protection in a crisis area if we were to go there tomorrow.”

As for her future plans, Lina hopes to work in some capacity with refugees, either in the United States or overseas. Born in Colombia and raised from the age of ten in Houston, Texas, Lina says she acquired an early understanding of displacement by seeing the many people who lost their homes due to conflict in her country of origin, and harbors an empathy for immigrants born of her own experience moving to the U.S. “I was a lucky immigrant in that my father had a job and our experience was smooth, but I also know what it is like to be an outsider and how hard it can be to adjust to an entirely new culture.”