Sex slaves or child soldiers? Schooling in African conflict zones in jeopardy, says aid group

A child soldier in Bunia, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2003.

A child soldier in Bunia, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2003.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

  • About 13 200 schools have been shut down in eight central and west African countries since 2019.
  • This affects the education of at least 2.5 million children.
  • Burkina Faso accounts for almost 50% of the school closures.

The future of entire generations of children is in jeopardy in central and west Africa, unless governments and other critical actors take urgent action to get them back into schools, an aid group has warned.

And in Burkina Faso, the problem is particularly severe. That country, under a coup military regime, accounts for almost 50% of schools that have been shut down due to insecurity in eight central and west African countries, a report by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) established.

In certain instances, the NRC said, armed non-state groups attack schools. Between January and August 2023, 147 incidents were reported in the region.

In some instances, schools stand empty as a result of forcible population transfers, or families and teachers leave an area when there is unrest.  

Young people from host communities who attend schools that are still in operation but are overloaded, as well as those who were forcibly removed from their homes, suddenly lose access to education.

The NRC said 13 200 schools were shut down in the two African regions in the past four years, a grave situation that has direct effects on the sustainable development goals (SDGs) they achieved.

In total, “the education of 2.5 million children is directly endangered”, the NRC said in a statement.

To prevent the situation from getting worse and allow reconstruction, the NRC called on stakeholders in armed conflict to avoid turning schools into war zones or military bases.

“Governments, armed forces, other parties to conflict, and the international community should take concerted action to stop attacks and threats against schools, students, and teachers and to strengthen sustainable support for quality learning for every child in the region,” the NRC said.

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In Africa’s latest and fastest-accelerating conflict in Sudan, now in its sixth month, a report by Reuters stated that the “war has spelled the end of education”.

In both central and west Africa, there have been calls from aid agencies for funding to help save the state of education.

However, by the beginning of September, only 3.9% of funding requests for education had been granted.

Comparatively, in September, the region’s total humanitarian sector saw a 30.5% response rate to requests for funding.

Hassane Hamadou, the NRC’s regional director in central and West Africa, is worried that children who are forced out of school will end up taking up arms if they are not forced into slavery or used for sexual exploitation.

He said:

Many will be forced to work, to join armed groups, or get married, shattering their futures.

In 2015, a total of 180 countries signed the safe school declaration.

It is an intergovernmental political agreement that gives countries the chance to express their public support for the necessity of continuing education during armed conflict, the need to defend students, teachers, schools, and universities from attack, and the implementation of practical measures to prevent the military use of schools.

With it being a binding agreement, the NRC is urging warring parties in conflict areas to uphold the promises made.

Hamadou said:

The signatory states of the safe school declaration must do their utmost to ensure its implementation and guarantee children a better future.

The central part of the Sahel region is the worst affected, with Burkina Faso accounting for 6 100 of the 9 000 schools that have been shut down.

The comeback of coups pushed the countries further into instability, making the fight against violent extremism a losing battle.

At the onset of the coup wave in 2019, there were 1 700 closed schools. The figure has shot up to 9 000.

“In a region where the protection of civilians and their access to basic services is increasingly threatened by insecurity and conflict, we have a collective duty to act to ensure that schools remain safe spaces for all forcibly displaced children and youth and those from host communities,” said Xavier Creach, the deputy director of the UNHCR’s regional bureau for west and central Africa.

The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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