Covid-19 and conflict forced over 12 million children from school in Africa

A staggering 12 million children missed up to four months of school across Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger due to Covid-19 restrictions. Meanwhile, 776,000 children were prevented from attending school the entire year due to insecurity, new figures by the Norwegian Refugee Council have revealed.

“Children are in the midst of a dual health and security threat in the Central Sahel. All the 40,000 schools in the region were forced to close because of the pandemic, pushing students from pre-school to secondary levels out of class in an area where access to education is often already hampered by growing insecurity, repeated displacement and poverty,”

said Maureen Magee, Regional Director for NRC in Central and West Africa.

As schools begin to reopen across the region, many lack the critical resources to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 transmission. In Niger, water and hygiene facilities in schools are far from adequate. Only 15 per cent of some 18,000 schools in the country have water points, and less than one-third have toilets. In Burkina Faso, overcrowded schools made space for displaced children who fled violence, even though Covid-19 prevention measures require less students per classroom.

Two young boys herding goats in Burkina Faso.

According to figures collated by NRC, the situation for students in conflict-affected schools in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger remains at a standstill. Over 4,000 schools remained closed for 776,000 students because of insecurity alone during 2019-2020 school year. This is almost twice as much as in 2018-2019.

Ninety attacks were reported on education in the Central Sahel between January and July 2020 alone. Burkina Faso experienced the highest number of attacks with over 40 reported incidents, including arson, looting of schools, abduction, threats and killing of teachers.

The ruins of a school bombed by French forces and never rebuilt.

“Four thousand schools are shut or burnt down, benches are stacked, chalkboards are blank and teachers are absent. Too many children whose lives are already devastated by conflict, now watch their future hang by a thread,”

added Magee.

Meanwhile, out-of-school children are particularly at risk of sexual exploitation and violence. Cases of child marriage for female students have spiked over the past few years. The UN recorded 387 cases in Mali in 2020, compared to 178 two years previously. Male students also face grave protection risks. Over 190 cases of enrolment by armed groups and forces in Mali were recorded between January and June 2020.

The funding of the education response in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger is falling short, with only 15 per cent of the funds received this year. As the international community meet on 20 October in Denmark to discuss the future of humanitarian responses in the Central Sahel, NRC is calling for an urgent scale-up of resources to ensure vulnerable children, particularly displaced children, have protected and continued access to quality education.

“Tomorrow’s pledging conference on the Central Sahel must place education and protecting schools firmly on its agenda. It cannot be the site of broken promises once again. Only real political commitments commensurate with the education stakes in the region will enable children to turn over a new leaf and write a brighter chapter for the next school year,”

said Magee.

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