Education in Crisis: an aftermath of the Manipur conflict

The current crisis in Manipur has kept children out of school for over 3 weeks. What is the impact and uncertainty caused by this conflict? what is the way forward?

At a time when we had begun to re-imagine a fresh start after the pandemic and a lengthy 2-year lockdown on children’s education here in Manipur, we have been hit by another totally unexpected crisis. Since 3rd May, children’s lives have been turned upside down because of the prevailing conflict. The horrific events which unfolded on that Wednesday evening have utterly destabilised our communities and as we wait on political solutions, there is a great sense of uncertainty about the future – be that one day, one month or one year from now.  Our immediate questions are – When can we reopen our schools? Will our children be safe? The need to get back to some semblance of normality is huge. Our children, in rural hills areas, who already face many daily challenges to their education due to hardships and poverty endured by their families, can ill afford to lose out on even more. Although we are eager to recommence the academic year, our priority remains the safety of all our students.

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Even as we plan to resume schooling, there are three main points to consider: 1) the mental and emotional well-being of our students; 2) financial struggles for those who have lost their homes, belongings and even livelihoods/jobs 3) considerable gaps in learning from COVID lockdown and now from the current, ongoing unrest.

When we can safely reopen, we must focus on welcoming children who have fled their homes and villages in the midst of mob violence, raging flames, gunfire and explosions. We need to consider their mental health and well-being as a top priority as school leaders within Kuki-Chin-Mizo communities. How can we support children who have lost everything – including homes and families? How can we facilitate spiritual and mental healing in these students? It is our duty to prepare safe spaces, where children are supported in working through their grief, anger, sadness, and any other emotion they may have. In other war-torn parts of the world, different types of therapy are seen as essential. How can a child who has experienced such acts of violence be expected to simply return to school in an entirely new environment and learn?

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If we neglect the mental and emotional well-being of our children, the impact on our society will be catastrophic in the very near future. As much as physical injuries require medical treatment and even surgery; so, do our hearts and minds. Untreated and unaddressed mental pain does not simply go away or disappear with time. It is a proven fact that if trauma is not dealt with, it can affect our physical health, and lead to various addictions and personality disorders. Therefore, as painful and challenging as it may be, we must learn how to guide our children and support them in expressing and working through their experiences. I am not an expert in this field, however, my 20-plus years of experience in children’s education and working with neglected and traumatised students has taught me a few basic requirements

  1. To create safe spaces for students who have survived traumatic experiences and to ensure that they feel safe coming to school.
  2. The need for some basic training for staff to pastorally care for students. 
  3. For students to feel their voice has been heard and listened to.
  4. For students to know and be able to express their emotions in a healthy way.

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For all the above, positive relationships with teachers and other students is necessary.  Staff need to be trained to identify behavioural traits indicating PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) and know how to handle these in a way which is supportive to the student. A ‘buddy system’ involving older students who could empathise and show compassion to others could be an effective way of helping to support displaced students in their new schools. Finally, encouraging students to express their emotions through drawing and writing (neatness not required!) in a special notebook (for their eyes only) is simple yet potentially effective – rather than allowing emotions to fester internally. These are just some suggestions and it would be great to hear about more ideas we can use here with our limited resources.

Many families have fled their homes carrying limited to no belongings. Most displaced people will need to start their lives over, with next to nothing. As private schools whose primary income is from tuition fees paid by students, we are fully aware of the economic condition of our families. Therefore, we need to be equally mindful of the current situation of our families and balance that with the need for sufficient income to pay our teachers. To ease the financial burden, private schools in Manipur have decided not to charge admission fees for new students. They will however be expected to pay tuition fees and the costs for any new textbooks. 

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Regarding gaps in our student’s learning, teachers must be instructed to find out what areas of the curriculum have been missed, something we have already been doing since the reopening of schools following the 2-year state-imposed lock-down. Unless we address these gaps, our students will not have the chance to build themselves a solid education. From nursery through to undergraduate students, the implications of this crisis are great for all. Amidst the uncertainty of when classes will resume, for displaced students there is the added uncertainty of where they will continue their studies. I have spoken to one upcoming Class XI student who had to flee her village last week. Her family is now separated as the children have been sent to safety out of state. She told me of her own fears from other HSLC (High School Leaver’s Certificates) classmates under the Board of Secondary Education Manipur (BOSEM) that rumours have been spread of Kuki-Chin-Mizo students’ results being tampered with. How true this is we do not know; we can only hope that their scores will be honoured.

We have no control over the chaotic events which surround us, but we must take control of how we respond amid this crisis. For now, all we can do is pray to be able to reopen schools soon and prayerfully plan in the coming months to limit and reverse the potential devastation to this upcoming generation. In the meantime, your helpful comments and suggestions are most welcome.

Lamtinkim Kipgen is Principal, Emmanuel School, Haipi.

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