Dakar, Senegal and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso – In the small towns of Burkina Faso’s Sahel region, straddling the borders with Mali and Niger, the long-delayed start of the school year finally arrived last month.
Classrooms there, and in much of the rest of the country, remained empty, even as children returned to school in the capital Ouagadougou on October 3.
“We have not resumed classes for this current school year because we cannot access our workplace, which is locked down,” says a teacher, who wanted to speak on condition of anonymity for fear of his safety. “We cannot go there with our own transportation, except by convoy or helicopter.”
Across the West African state, some 4,300 schools, about a fifth of the country’s total, are currently closed amid ongoing insecurity, according to the United Nations.
The Burkina Faso government estimates some 700,000 children and 20,000 teachers are affected, but many more could be cut off from the classroom as the number of internally displaced people in the region tops 1.6 million.
‘A vicious cycle of violence’
Since 2015, Burkina Faso has been locked in a battle against multiple armed groups, some linked to ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda, which have invaded from neighboring Mali through the Sahel, as the semi-arid strip below the desert is known. Sahara. .
Schools in Mali and Niger, which have also been affected by rebel activity, have also come under attack as the conflict has raged. But nowhere is the cost of classrooms more stark than in Burkina Faso, which has more than 60 percent of all schools closed in the three countries, according to UN figures.
In Burkina Faso and around the world, alarm bells are ringing about the security challenges posed by hundreds of thousands of out-of-school children and the scale of such violation of children’s basic rights to education.
“You don’t go to school, so if you’re a girl, you’re going to be married in early childhood,” Yasmine Sherif, director of Education Cannot Wait, the UN’s global fund for education in crisis situations, told Al. Jazeera. “Boys, on the other hand, don’t go to school… you are very exposed to being recruited or convinced to join armed groups. Because if you don’t get an education, [if] you have nothing to do, a young adolescent is very likely – against his will or with his will – to join armed groups. So there is this vicious cycle of perpetration of violence.”
With its closure, the social support that schools can sometimes offer also disappears.
“What you also have is a very traumatized young population, because school is not just about reading and writing,” Sherif added. “[Schools provide] social and emotional skills, school feeding, water, sanitation, security: all that is lost”.
Schools are closed for a variety of reasons: Clashes between the military, militias and armed groups are sometimes so rampant that students, parents and teachers are afraid to venture into classrooms. On other occasions, teachers have faced threats from some of these groups.
Experts say schools are also targeted, burned or blown up specifically by al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) because they are a symbol of the state as well as French and secular education. .
“Schools are often some of the first targets, along with city councils and city halls,” said Héni Nsaibia, a senior researcher at The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a conflict research group. “They offer concrete targets for militant groups to attack as a way of putting their own footprint on the map. [to say]: ‘We have entered this area’”.
Since 2021, ACLED has recorded 144 schools specifically targeted, 87 of them this year alone, almost all by JNIM.
And since schools have closed, Nsaibia added, the “average ages [of fighters] they have really declined over the years.”
Huge demands, stretched resources
While the violence in Burkina Faso is often summed up as a spillover from the conflict in neighboring Mali, it has become firmly entrenched in the country, experts say. The east of the country, along the border with Niger, has been particularly affected.
As a February 2022 report from the Clingendael Institute, a Netherlands-based research group, summarized, violent groups have “successfully implanted themselves in eastern communities, exploiting widespread grievances against the central state and local elites.” amid decades of state neglect and prevailing hierarchical socioeconomic conditions. relations.”
School closures have also sparked riots of their own.
In the eastern city of Diapaga, a parents’ association organized a protest march in October calling for the reopening of schools that were closed because teachers had not shown up, out of concern for their safety, or because they were cut off from the city. . Through November, schools in Diapaga continued to open and close sporadically depending on the changing security situation.
Some 100,000 students do not attend school in the Eastern Region alone and, according to Pascal Lankaande, spokesman for the Comité engagé de réflexion pour la cause de l’Est, a local civil society group, only eight of the 27 communes of the region. their schools
In Djibo, a city in the Sahel region under a continuous siege by JNIM since February, students took to the streets last month after schools did not open on time.
While many children in Burkina Faso are no longer learning, some have moved on to other schools in other parts of the country, which now face the challenge of integrating hundreds of thousands of displaced children with no other classrooms to turn to.
Last year, the Ministry of National Education launched a call for school principals to do everything possible to register and re-register internally displaced students. But for these institutions, many of which were already underfunded before the crisis, increasing student numbers further strain scarce resources.
Education Cannot Wait says it has spent $23 million on emergency response measures since 2019, including training teachers, delivering school lessons over the radio, covering school fees, providing remedial courses and building thousands of classrooms.
But the scale of the problem probably requires close to $1 billion, Sheif acknowledges. “We are dealing with massive lawsuits and the resources have to be up to par,” she said.
a downward trajectory
Amid ongoing violence, two coups have taken place in Ouagadougou in the past year, with the new military leaders citing ongoing insecurity as their main motivating factor each time.
However, neither of the two strongmen has so far managed to end the seven-year conflict or return the children to school.
“The current trajectory is very downward,” Nsaibia said. “Even before the January coup, and even more now in [the] September [coup], the largest effort in the country to contain militancy or insurgency was extremely overwhelmed. This has only been accelerated by the last hit.”