Two Million Children in West and Central Africa Robbed of an Education Due to Conflict

Fanta Mohamet, 14, writes on the blackboard at the school she attends in Zamaï, a village near a settlement for refugees in Mayo-Tsanaga, Far North Region, Cameroon on 28 May 2019. Courtesy: United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)

By IPS Correspondent
JOHANNESBURG, Aug 24 2019 – Fourteen-year-old Fanta lives in a tent in a settlement in Zamaï, a village in the Far North Region of Cameroon with her mother and two brothers. They came here more than a year ago after her father and elder brother were murdered and her elder sister abducted by the extremist group Boko Haram.

The day members of the armed extremist group Boko Haram came to their home in Nigeria to search for her father, a police officer, was the day everything changed.

The fate of her sister is unknown but each year thousands of girls are abducted by the armed group and forced into marriage.

There are 1,500 other displaced people who live in the settlement in Zamaï – more than three fifths of whom are children. And while life remains difficult, Fanta has something many other children of violence in the region do not, she is able to continue her education despite the prevailing insecurity.

According to new report released Aug. 23 by the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF), nearly two million children in West and Central Africa are being robbed of an education due to violence and insecurity in and around their schools.

“Ideological opposition to what is seen as Western-style education, especially for girls, is central to many of the disputes that ravage the region. As a result, schoolchildren, teachers, administrators and the education infrastructure are being deliberately targeted. And region-wide, such attacks are on the rise,” UNICEF noted.

Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Niger and Nigeria, are experiencing a surge in threats and attacks against students, teachers and schools.

Areas where schools are primarily affected by conflict. Courtesy: UNICEF

The report also noted:

  • Nearly half of the schools closed across the region are located in northwest and southwest Cameroon; 4,437 schools there closed as of June 2019, pushing more than 609,000 children out of school.
  • More than one quarter of the 742 verified attacks on schools globally in 2019 took place in five countries across West and Central Africa.
  • Between April 2017 and June 2019, the countries of the central Sahel – Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – witnessed a six-fold increase in school closures due to violence, from 512 to 3,005.
  • And CAR saw a 21 percent increase in verified attacks on schools between 2017 and 2019.

UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Charlotte Petri Gornitzka and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Muzoon Almellehan travelled to Mali earlier this week and witnessed first hand the impact on children’s education.

“Deliberate attacks and unabating threats against education – the very foundation of peace and prosperity have cast a dark shadow on children, families, and communities across the region,” said Gornitzka. “I visited a displacement camp in Mopti, central Mali, where I met young children at a UNICEF-supported safe learning space. It was evident to me how vital education is for them and for their families.”

UNICEF has supported the setup of 169 community learning centres in Mali, which provide safe spaces for children to learn.

The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), a coalition of international human rights and education organisations from across the world, noted that in the past five years the coalition had documented more than 14,000 attacks in 34 countries and that there was a systematic pattern of attacks on education. “Armed forces and armed groups were also reportedly responsible for sexual violence in educational settings, or along school routes, in at least 17 countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, during the same period.”  

In May, GCPEA released a 76-page report on the effects that the 2016-2017 attacks by armed groups on hundreds of schools in the Kasai region of central Democratic Republic of Congo had on children.

Based on over 55 interviews with female students, as well as principals, and teachers from schools that were attacked in the region, the report described how members of armed groups raped female students and school staff during the attacks or when girls were fleeing such attacks. Girls were also abducted from schools to “purportedly to join the militia, but instead raped or forced them to “marry” militia members”.

“Being out of school, even for relatively short periods, increases the risk of early marriage for girls,” GCPEA had said.

UNICEF raised this also as a concern for children affected by the conflict in West and Central Africa.

“Out-of-school children also face a present filled with dangers. Compared to their peers who are in school, they are at a much higher risk of recruitment by armed groups. Girls face an elevated risk of gender-based violence and are forced into child marriage more often, with ensuing early pregnancies and childbirth that threaten their lives and health,” the UNICEF Child Alert titled Education Under Threat in West and Central Africa, noted.

Fanta Mohamet, 14, on her way home from school in Zamaï, a village near a settlement for displaced people in Mayo-Tsanaga, Far North Region, Cameroon on 28 May 2019. Courtesy: United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)

UNICEF has long been sounding the alarm about the attacks on schools, students and educators, stating that these are attacks on children’s right to an education and on their futures.

The agency and its partners called on governments, armed forces, other parties to take action to stop attacks and threats against schools, students, teachers and other school personnel in West and Central Africa – and to support quality learning in the region.

The U.N. body also called on States to endorse and implement the Safe Schools Declaration. The declaration provides States the opportunity to express broad political support for the protection and continuation of education in armed conflict.

“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 UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa Marie-Pierre Poirier. “Culturally suitable models with innovative, inclusive and flexible approaches, which meet quality learning standards, can help reach many children, especially in situation of conflict.”

UNICEF is working with governments across West and Central Africa to offer alternative teaching and learning tools, which includes the first-of-its-kind Radio Education in Emergencies programme. Other interventions also include psychosocial support, the distribution of exercise books, pencils and pens to children to facilitate their learning.

“Education is important. If a girl marries young, it’s dangerous. If her husband doesn’t care for her, with an education she can take care of herself,” Fanta said.

Hong Kong Protests: A Peaceful and Violent Weekend

While standing to form the Hong Kong Way on Aug. 23, Protesters cover their right eye in reference to a woman who received a serious injury to her face, which was allegedly caused by police shooting a rubber bullet at her head. One woman (R) holds a sign urging the U.S. government to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which was introduced by Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ.) and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). Credit: Laurel Chor/IPS

By Laurel Chor
HONG KONG, Aug 24 2019 – As protests in Hong Kong continue over the weekend, thousands of people joined hands to form a human chain that stretched across the city on Friday. It was yet another demonstration – this one entirely peaceful – in a series of protests that have rocked the former British colony for the past 12 weeks. 

The “Hong Kong Way” protest was inspired by the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way, a 600-km human chain formed across Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, which at the time were a part of the Soviet Union. Two million people stood hand-in-hand that day to protest Soviet rule.

Yesterday on Aug. 23, organisers estimated that 135,000 people participated in the Hong Kong version, which stretched 60 kilometres across both Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Hundreds even made their way up the iconic Lion Rock Mountain, lighting up the peak with cell phone lights. 

The human chain marked a shift in tone in the protests, which were often violent. Today, on Aug. 24 protestors reportedly hurled objects and gasoline bombs at police, with police firing tear gas in response.

On Saturday, Aug. 24 protestors reportedly hurled objects and gasoline bombs at police, with police firing tear gas in response.Courtesy: Studio Incendo

The Hong Kong protests were sparked by a proposed extradition bill that would allow suspects to be sent to China and possibly face an unjust trial system, making people fearful that Beijing would exploit the law for political reasons. The demonstrations have been further fuelled by anger towards the police for its excessive use of force and protesters’ key demands now include complete withdrawal of the proposed extradition bill, as well as genuine universal suffrage. 

Earlier this month, two mainland Chinese men were held and beaten at the Hong Kong airport, where protests had disrupted flights for two days in a row. After the incidents, Beijing strongly condemned the protesters and compared the attacks to “terrorism”. On the other hand, organisations including Amnesty International and the United Nations have repeatedly criticised the Hong Kong Police Force for its violent methods to control the protests.

Mindful of public opinion, protesters took a decidedly more peaceful direction after those incidents. First, they apologised for the airport protests. Then, a peaceful march was organised last weekend, with an estimated 1.7 million attending, echoing two similar marches in June that had attracted one million, then two million a week later – an impressive feat in a city of only 7.4 million residents. 

Organisers of the Hong Kong Way issued a statement highlighting Hong Kong protesters’ solidarity: “We are no longer divided into ‘peaceful’ or ‘frontline’ protesters – we are joined as one in our resolve to fight for our freedom.” 

Protests were scheduled for the weekend and are set to continue for the rest of the month. The Hong Kong government has yet to meet with protesters and has not caved in on any of their demands, leading the city to wonder how its biggest political crisis will ever be resolved. 

The Hong Kong protests were sparked by a proposed extradition bill that would allow suspects to be sent to China and possibly face an unjust trial system, making people fearful that Beijing would exploit the law for political reasons. This dated photo is from a protest rally last month. Courtesy: Studio Incendo/CC By 2.0

Standing in front of the famous Victoria Harbor on Aug. 23, protesters cover their right eye in reference to a woman who received a serious injury to her face, which was allegedly caused by police shooting a rubber bullet at her head, as they hold their cell phone lights in the other hand. Credit: Laurel Chor/IPS

A protester hugs a stranger standing in Sham Shui Po on Aug. 23 as part of the Hong Kong Way, the participants of which included families with children. Credit: Laurel Chor/IPS

Protesters stand in front of the Hong Kong Space Museum as part of the Hong Kong Way, a 60-kilometre human chain on Aug. 23. Credit: Laurel Chor/IPS

Protesters – often not knowing those standing next to them – link up to form the Hong Kong Way in Sham Shui Po on Aug. 23, while chanting slogans encouraging Hong Kong protesters and demanding the “liberation” of the city. Credit: Laurel Chor/IPS

Protesters forming the Hong Kong Way hold up their cell phone lights while standing on a busy road in Sham Shui Po, where double decker buses often passed through, on Aug. 23. Credit: Laurel Chor/IPS