The first thing you need for a decent education in the DRC? Clean water

Katie Edmondson Education, Private sector, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

In a country where too many girls still don’t get a basic education, textiles firm Romo has been working with Oxfam to provide support that goes well beyond textbooks or new classrooms. In a blog for International Youth Day, Katie Edmondson looks back on 17 years of an evolving partnership.

Tap running
Drawing water from a tap set up by Oxfam at a camp for internally displaced people in DRC. Oxfam has supported the installation of water points in schools as part of its partnership with Romo (Picture: Arlette Bashizi/Oxfam)

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, there has been a long history of children missing out on basic education. In 2016, a UNICEF factsheet revealed 40% of girls and 20% of boys did not finish primary school. In rural areas, where parents have often missed out on school themselves, girls often never enrolled at all. That stark education gap – and the particular challenges for girls – are what has driven a partnership since 2005 between Oxfam and The Romo Group to improve education for primary children in the country.  Founded in 1902, The Romo Group is a textiles business based in Nottinghamshire, England, which has been run by the same family for five generations.  

Although primary schooling in DRC was technically made free in 2019, many barriers to education remain: including lack of infrastructure, trained staff and financial barriers such as parents still having to buy school supplies such as uniforms and notebooks. Funding from Romo has helped to tackle such barriers: building classrooms, training teachers, and paying for textbooks for their children. But one key lesson from the project is the need to look beyond this at all the things children need for a safe and viable school life. That includes funding everything from water points to give access to clean water; to safe and hygienic latrines so girls in particular can use school toilets with confidence; to training for parents to help boost family incomes, as well as training to make community voices heard as they demand better education for all.

Chantal, who has two children at one of the project’s schools, explains how money is tight, especially as she is a widow. She says: “I work in the fields for others and, when I am paid, I also find food for my children so they do not go to sleep hungry.” In this context, the project’s support has been crucial and she is hopeful that her children can complete their primary education: “Thank you to Oxfam and the Romo Foundation for the support… For my child, I wish that he studies well and completes his school course.”

How the partnership began

Romo first approached Oxfam looking for a way looking to support education in lower-income countries. “We didn’t have a set idea as to which country or specific project we wanted to support, but we believed strongly in the importance of education as a way of helping people out of poverty,” says Felicity Mould, Director of People, Culture and Communications at Romo. “When Oxfam’s DRC project was brought to our attention it felt like a wonderful opportunity to support children and communities in a part of the world neglected by our own UK media. Romo has now been supporting Oxfam in the DRC since 2005, in a bid to improve facilities and governance in schools, as well as the quality of education.”

“Education in general, but especially for girls, was a key factor of this development programme; it became a priority after we discovered that so many girls do not complete their primary education due to cultural, social and economic pressures.”

The progress so far

In the first decade of the project, Romo funded a number of improvements and initiatives in Equateur Province in the west of the country that have impacted many thousands of young lives. Between 2005 and 2016 the partnership:

  • Reached more than 19,000 direct beneficiaries, improving education for 18,000 children. For most of these, this will be the only formal education they received.
  • Built over 420 classrooms in 70 schools.
  • Provided office space for 70 headteachers.
  • Trained over 420 teachers.
  • Provided teaching materials to over 70 schools.
  • Awarded 34 scholarships to vulnerable children to enable them to receive an education.
  • Provided over 280 latrines in 70 schools with accompanying hygiene education.
  • Trained and equipped over 3,000 children to act as hygiene ambassadors in their schools.
  • Trained 540 parent committee members to support their schools.
  • Supported over 800 participants to develop sustainable income-generating activities in their schools.
  • Distributed 78 bicycles, enabling Ministry of Education inspectors to undertake inspections and Parent Committee members to transport crops to market.
  • Ran 320 campaigns to raise local awareness of issues including education for girls, free primary education for all, environmental protection and HIV/Aids.
  • Provided training in advocacy and lobbying to over 1,000 local people from parents to community leaders, to speak out for increased access to quality education for all.

A holistic approach

In the current phase of the project, from 2017 to now, we have seen more evidence of the project’s holistic approach: including funding clean water, campaigns to promote the value of girls’ education and training for parents to help boost family incomes. Key achievements include:

  • 18 water points were constructed in seven schools bringing clean drinking water to 1,966 children. This also benefits approximately 12,000 people living nearby, who now have access to clean water. The school authorities in the targeted schools are already reporting a significant reduction in incidences of waterborne diseases in their communities.
  • 500 vulnerable students have gained access to education through our scholarship project, which paid for school fees, uniforms, and school kits.
  • 5,143 textbooks have now been distributed to 57 schools to improve the quality of education teachers can give.
  • 372 teachers have received training on the “Active and Participatory Method” and on national teaching standards, enabling them to deliver engaging lessons for students and cultivate better learning environments.
  • Our education campaigns have reached and informed 25,576 people about the value of girl’s education and the importance of schooling, well above the target of 20,000.
  • 268 people from Parent-Teacher Associations received training on the implementation and management of income-generating activities (farming methods and crop storage).
  • 1,361 people (including 647 women and 714 men) from the school community were trained on the water cycle and Covid-19 prevention measures on World Water Day.

For parents, carers and children, the project has offered education and opportunities that were not previously available. One parent says she has taken on the care of her nephew after his mother died, alongside her own seven children. “I did not have enough financial means for his school care,” she explains. “Through this project this orphan child has benefited, so thanks to Oxfam and the Romo foundation.”

How the project has evolved to support community voices

Since the partnership with Romo began, Oxfam and the entire development sector has changed a lot. It’s no longer enough for international NGOs to simply step in and fill the gaps by providing essential services, such as school buildings. Alongside this, there is growing awareness of the need to shift power to communities themselves and support them to have their voices heard so they can co-create and have a say in how programmes operate and influence decision makers directly.

In the DRC, that has meant much more emphasis on improving the system as a whole: supporting government authorities to fulfil their roles as effectively as possible and ensuring local people are able to lead, say what support they need, and be heard.

As Olivier Makita, one of the Oxfam/Romo project managers who oversees implementation of the water points in schools, says: “It is the school communities and local leaders who manage these water points.” This is important, he says, as the water is used not just during school but outside school hours and by the whole community. “Logically, even when returning from school, the child has the right to use this drinking water.”

Much more to be done

“We’re extremely pleased with and proud of the progress that this project has achieved so far,” says Romo’s Felicity  Mould. She says senior staff have taken a keen interest in the project, with CEO Jonathan Mould and other managers visiting DRC to see for themselves the impact it has had.

But in a country ranked as one of the poorest in the world – with 71% of the population living in poverty, a chronically underfunded education system, poor access to water and frequent discrimination and violence towards women and girls – the company is also aware of the need to sustain its commitments. “So much has already been achieved but there is still so much more to be done, and we remain committed to championing and supporting this cause,” says Felicity Mould.


Katie Edmondson

Katie Edmondson is a Private Sector Partnerships Manager at Oxfam GB

Find out more about International Youth Day here.