Dakar, Senegal & Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso – In the small towns in the Sahel region of Burkina Faso, on the border with Mali and Niger, the long-delayed school year finally started last month.

Classrooms there – and in much of the rest of the country – have 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 do not have access to our workplace, which is blocked,” says a teacher, who asked to speak anonymously for fear of his safety. “We cannot go there by our own means of transport, except by convoy or helicopter.”

According to the United Nations, some 4,300 schools in the West African state, about a fifth of the country’s total, are currently closed because of the continuing insecurity.

The Burkinabé government estimates that some 700,000 children and 20,000 teachers are affected, but many more could be cut off from classrooms as the number of internally displaced people in the region exceeds 1.6 million.

Schoolchildren who have fled attacks by armed militants in the Sahel region attend a class in Dori, Burkina Faso
Schoolchildren who fled attacks by armed fighters in the Sahel region attend a class in Dori, Burkina Faso November 24, 2020 [Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

‘A vicious circle of violence’

Since 2015, Burkina Faso has been embroiled in a battle against multiple armed groups — some with ties to ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda — that have invaded from neighboring Mali across the Sahel, such as the semi-arid strip beneath the Sahara desert. is called .

Schools in Mali and Niger – which have also been affected by the rebels’ activities – have also been attacked as the conflict continues. But nowhere is the toll on classrooms greater than in Burkina Faso, which accounts for more than 60 percent of total school closures in the three countries, according to UN figures.

Alarm bells are ringing across Burkina Faso and around the world about the safety challenges faced by hundreds of thousands of out-of-school children and the magnitude of such a violation of children’s basic right to education.

“You don’t go to school, so if you’re a girl, you get married before young children instead,” Yasmine Sherif, director of Education Cannot Wait, the UN’s global fund for education in crisis situations, told Al Jazeera. “The boys, on the other hand, you don’t go to school… you are very exposed to being drafted or persuaded to join armed groups. Because if you don’t get an education, [if] you have nothing to do, a young teenager is very inclined – against his will or with his will – to join armed groups. So there is just a vicious cycle of violence going on.”

With their closure, the social support that schools can sometimes provide also disappears.

“Whatever you have is a very traumatized young population, because school is not just reading and writing,” Sherif added. “[Schools provide] social and emotional skills, school nutrition, water, sanitation, safety – you lose all of that.”

Schools are closed for various reasons: sometimes fighting between the army, militias and armed groups is so fierce that students, parents and teachers are afraid to enter the classrooms. At other times, teachers have faced threats from some of these groups.

Experts say schools have also been specifically targeted, burned down or blown up by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), as they are a symbol of both the state and French and secular education.

“Schools are often some of the first targets, along with city halls and mayoral offices,” said Héni Nsaibia, a senior researcher with The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a conflict research group. “They provide concrete targets for militant groups to attack, putting their own footprint on the map [to say]: ‘We have entered this area.’”

As of 2021, ACLED has recorded 144 schools specifically targeted by attacks – 87 of them this year alone – almost all by JNIM.

And with schools closed, Nsaibia added, the “average ages [of fighters] have really gone down a bit over the years”.

Huge demands, limited resources

While the violence in Burkina Faso is often described as a spillover effect from the conflict in neighboring Mali, experts say it has taken firm root in the country. The east of the country, along the border with Niger, has been particularly hard hit.

As summarized in a February 2022 report from the Clingendael Institute, a research group based in the Netherlands, violent groups have “successfully implanted themselves in Eastern communities, leveraging widespread grievances against the central state and local elites amid decades of state neglect and prevailing hierarchical socioeconomic relations.”

The closure of schools has also caused unrest.

In the eastern city of Diapaga, a parents’ association staged a protest march in October calling for the reopening of schools that had been closed because teachers had failed to show up – out of concern for their safety or being cut off from the city. . In November, schools in Diapaga opened and closed sporadically depending on the changing security situation.

In the East region alone, some 100,000 pupils are out of school, and according to Pascal Lankoande, spokesman for the Comité engagé de réflexion pour la cause de l’Est, a local civil society group, only eight of the 27 municipalities in the region are region opened their schools.

In Djibo, a city in the Sahel region under constant JNIM siege since February, students took to the streets last month after schools failed to open on time.

While many children in Burkina Faso are no longer learning, some have moved to other schools elsewhere in the country, which now face the challenge of integrating hundreds of thousands of displaced children who have no other classrooms to go to.

Last year, the national Ministry of Education called on school principals to do everything possible to enroll and re-enroll the internally displaced students. But for these institutions, many of which were already underfunded before the crisis, the increased number of students stretches their resources even further.

Education Cannot Wait says it has spent $23 million on emergency response since 2019, including teacher training, teaching over-the-air teaching, paying school fees, conducting remedial courses and building thousands of classrooms.

But the magnitude of the problem likely requires more than $1 billion, Sheif believes. “We have enormous demands and the resources have to meet them,” she said.

A downward trajectory

Amid the ongoing violence, two coups have taken place in Ouagadougou in the past year, with the new military leaders each citing continued insecurity as their main motivating factor.

However, both strongmen have so far failed to end the seven-year conflict or send children back to school.

“The current trajectory is very downward,” Nsaibia said. “Even before the coup in January, and even more so now [the] September [coup], the increased effort in the country to contain militancy or rebellion was extremely overwhelming. This has only been accelerated by the latest coup.”

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