Humanitarian CrisesNews

Over 50% Children Feel Unsafe In Schools In Central Sahel- NRC Report

High level of stress is leading children in conflict-affected areas to underperform at schools in Central Sahel.

Continuous attacks on schools are stressing children out in conflict-affected Central Sahel, with 53 per cent saying they do not feel safe at school, a new report by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) revealed. 

The region is beset with security threats from inter-communal disputes and non-state armed groups who have been targeting education by burning and looting schools, as well as abducting students. State forces and non-state armed groups also use dozens of schools for military purposes, including as camps and temporary bases.

In Burkina Faso, attacks on education more than doubled between 2018 and 2021, contributing to the closure of more than 3,000 schools. In Mali, over 60 attacks on education took place in 2019 alone, with over 1,100 schools closed in 2021.

Infographic: Aishat Babatunde/HumAngle

By the end of 2021, over 5,500 schools were shut down in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, barring children from learning and leaving them without a much-needed support network, according to the new report launched on Wednesday, Feb. 16.

In the report, the NRC said conflict is having a heavy psychological impact on children, affecting their behaviour and learning capacity. 

The NRC interviewed 641 children (354 girls and 287 boys) from six to 14 years old in 19 schools in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

According to the report, 53 per cent of the children interviewed said they did not feel safe at school. 

Almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of children reported having little to no hope for their future and 62 per cent of children said they were unable to concentrate.

At least nine out of 10 (91 per cent) said they have issues dealing with their emotions. The report said some children isolated themselves and were no longer interacting with their peers or participating in class. Others expressed their stress through anger, aggression, or panic attacks, the assessment revealed.

“The desire to learn should never be trumped by the need to hide,” said Marta Schena, Regional Education Specialist for the Norwegian Refugee Council. 

“These children have witnessed or endured multiple kinds of violence leading to chronic stress and trauma. It is our duty to help them rediscover the language of innocence, joy and curiosity.”

Despite soaring needs, Schena said, funding and support for the education sector trails behind in the humanitarian response. 

“Only 6.5 per cent of the education needs were covered in 2021 in Burkina Faso, and 7.9% in Niger, making it the least funded sector of the humanitarian response in both countries,” she said.

“Schools can play an essential role in healing the psychological wounds of millions of children and help them regain a sense of normality. But first, they must become safe places again.”

Past interventions

To address the effects of school attacks on children, the NRC, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and UNICEF made several interventions in the past.

In Dec. 2020, the NRC launched the Better Learning Program (BLP) implemented by teachers to support children’s recovery from the traumatic events experienced during conflict and displacement. 

The programme aimed at improving conditions for learning through mobilisation of a child’s support network of caregivers, teachers and counsellors to assess and address the level of mental and psychological trauma faced by children.

In 2021, the UNHCR strengthened the capacity of teachers and members of community structures in refugee and IDPs hosting areas of the three countries by organising training sessions dedicated to the psychosocial support (PSS) of students. 

“Psychosocial support was also provided on an individual basis for cases requiring child protection interventions,” the NRC said.

“UNICEF has broadly taken a multi-sectoral approach to providing psychosocial support to children in the Sahel, across education, child protection and nutrition activities in particular.”

Way forward

The NRC called on regional governments and the international community to place the safety and well-being of children at the heart of all education related decisions by supporting and prioritising the creation of safe and protective learning environments.

“They should provide access to appropriate training and ongoing in-service support for teaching and non-teaching staff living in insecure and displacement areas,” it said.

“Define clear roles and responsibilities, increase resources and supportive supervision for teachers, to ensure that schools are turned into safe and protective spaces where forcibly displaced children can regain a sense of normalcy following the trauma of displacement.”

“Regularly prevent and monitor protection from sexual exploitation and abuse in all learning environments; set-up up quality alternative learning spaces in consultation with affected communities and relevant stakeholders in areas where formal schools are not considered a safe option and cannot be reopened.” 

It added that local and international NGO must increase and strengthen psychosocial and child protection support interventions at multiple levels to students and schools’ staff and provide them the tools aiming to enhance their mid and long-term recovery making sure that no child is left behind. 

Children’s general recovery, wellbeing and academic functioning should be monitored and assessed periodically, the report said.

It recommended school staff and family members to involve parents in the recovery process and strengthen a communication channel among parents, teachers and students; and to provide life-saving knowledge and skills to children, helping them build confidence and self-esteem as well as capacity to express themselves through role playing and group discussions.

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Aishat Babatunde

Aishat Babatunde heads the digital reporting desk. Before joining HumAngle, she worked at Premium Times and Nigerian Tribune. She is a graduate of English from the University of Ibadan.

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