Violence forces 1.9 million children out of classes in west and central Africa

By Saeed Kamali Dehghan

More than 1.9 million children are forced out of school across west and central Africa due to rising violence and insecurity, putting them at higher risk of recruitment by armed groups, the UN’s children agency has warned.

In an urgent report published on Friday, Unicef revealed that more than 9,000 schools have been shut down as of June this year in eight countries; Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Niger and Nigeria.

The latest figures amount to a three-fold increase in the number of schools forcibly closed between the end of 2017 and June 2019, indicating an upsurge in such attacks in the region. The closures, which have also affected almost 44,000 teachers, have exposed the children to a greater risk of exploitation, child marriage and early pregnancy.

“Girls face an elevated risk of gender-based violence and are often forced into child marriage, with ensuing early pregnancies and childbirth that threaten their lives and health,” said the report. “Both boys and girls become easier targets for traffickers and are quicker to fall prey to recruitment into armed groups.”

Five countries in west and central Africa account for more than a quarter of the 742 verified attacks that took place globally against schools this year. In Mali, such attacks have doubled in the last two year, resulting in the closure of 900 schools.

Cameroon, where insecurity is particularly rife in its north-west and south-west regions, accounts for nearly half of all school closures in west and central Africa – more than 4,400 schools were forcibly closed in the country, affecting more than 600,000 children.

The number of schools forced to shut in Burkina Faso due to violence has risen to 2,000, while the figures for Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria – the four states affected by the crisis in the Lake Chad Basin – remained around the same high level of two years ago (981 schools in 2017, compared with 1,054 in 2019).

School closures in the central Sahel countries of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger altogether had increased six-fold in the past two years, rising from 512 to 3,005.

Hussaini, a 14-year-old from a village in northern Burkina Faso, is among scores of children who have not been to school for more than a year. “I was in class in my village. We heard screaming. Then people started firing guns. They shot at our teachers and killed one of them,” he said, according to Unicef.

“They burned down the classrooms. I was scared. I felt weak and lost. Then we just ran.” Deprived of going to school, Hussaini has instead turned to Radio Education in Emergencies, which broadcasts lessons, to continue his education. Radio Education in Emergencies is a joint programme between Unicef and Children’s Radio Foundation that has been helping children in conflict-stricken countries since 2016.

Fatoumata, a 12-year-old girl living in the Ségou region of central Mali, hasn’t been to school for two years. In 2017, “bad men” arrived, she said, according to a testimony provided by Unicef, referring to forces that wanted two teachers to leave.

She is now among 1,200 children in the the Ségou region who attend 19 community learning centres, which help children in the absence of schools.

“With more than 40 million 6- to 14-year-old children missing out on their right to education in west and central Africa, it is crucial that governments and their partners work to diversify available options for quality education,” said Marie-Pierre Poirier, Unicef’s regional director for west and central Africa.

“Culturally suitable alternative learning pathways with innovative, inclusive and flexible approaches, which meet quality learning standards, can help reach many children, especially in situation of conflict.”

A row of old desks lies across the road on the outskirts of Banki town in north-east Nigeria
A row of old desks lies across the road on the outskirts of Banki town in north-east Nigeria. Beyond the desks, homes and shops are deserted due to insecurity. Photograph: Marko Kokic/Unicef

The surge in school attacks have put its “severely underfunded” education programmes in jeopardy, Unicef warned, saying that nearly one in four children worldwide in need of humanitarian support for educational reasons live in 10 countries in west and central Africa.

Fanta, a 14-year-old girl whose ordeal has been highlighted in the Unicef report, has been living in a refugee settlement tent in a village in northern Cameroon since a year ago when Boko Haram militants kidnapped her sister after killing her father and brother.

“I lived with anxiety every day,” she recalled. “They would come three, four times a day looking for my father. They killed my father and my older brother. They took my sister away. I haven’t seen her since.”