A month after a deadly magnitude-7.5 earthquake struck Papua New Guinea’s Highlands, aid workers have warned that an entire “generation” of children may miss out on a proper education.
Tremors have continued since the quake, causing distress for already grief-stricken families, while heavy rain and landslides have lashed the area.
“We saw trauma cases and crushed bones, we saw families whose children had been hurt by falling rocks,” Noreen Chambers from UNICEF told the ABC’s Pacific Beat program.
“We also met a woman who had lost her entire family, her husband and seven kids, right before her eyes when there was a landslide and it swallowed up her entire family and she was so traumatised.”
Damage forces continued school closures
Families shelter in a makeshift tent in Pimaga, PNG, after their homes were damaged or destroyed by recent earthquakes. (Supplied: Thomas Nybo)
In Hela province, the damage to homes and infrastructure has been so bad early indications suggest schools will not be able to re-open at all this year.
While children aren’t at school, many are living in cramped, makeshift care centres, where men, women and children share basic facilities.
Noreen Chambers said one of the schools she visited was only having half-day classes because the boys toilets had collapsed.
She said that even in the town, children were frightened to stay in school for long periods of time.
“Because there’s still a lot of aftershocks and earth tremors they’re experiencing every day, they have this fear factor that the big one is still coming, so they want to be at home with their parents,” she said.
Save the Children’s Jennifer El-Sibai said that in addition to aid, a focus on the children’s futures was essential.
“A lot of the attention has been on life-saving assistance, but the need to plan for education and what happens next has to happen now,” she said.
“[We must] make sure that’s not ignored and we’re not asking ourselves in a year’s time, or two years’ time, why this generation of kids hasn’t been able to get back to school.”
Funding shortfalls evident even before quake
10-year-old Abel Jeffery hasn’t been able to return to his grade three class at Tente Primary School since the quake. (Supplied: James Mepham)
PNG’s Department of Education faced an uneasy start to 2018 with funding shortfalls and a familiar pattern of teacher pay disputes.
Assistant Secretary for Policy and Planning, John Kawage, admitted the department was facing a monumental challenge.
He said although the government had a plan in place to rebuild infrastructure, there was no easy solution to get children back to school.
“The decision is not made but the likely decision is we’ll request students to transfer to nearby schools to continue their education,” he said.
“Those who really cannot afford to find accommodation and shelter might go without the education for the rest of the year.”
Ms Chambers said most of the students affected by the quake would take a long time to be ready to return to learning, even if they had schools to go to.
“I think for most of them, they’ll have to repeat their grades when they go back, so that means they’ll be behind with their peers around the rest of the country,” she said.
“But at the same time — and this is just my own personal opinion — a lot of them will be too traumatised.”
Fiona, and her son Silver Star have been living in this makeshift tent since an earthquake destroyed their home in nearby Daga village. (Supplied: Thomas Nybo)