"I used to love school, to read, to count and to play during recess," the boy, identified only by his first name, told the United Nations Children's Agency. He is not alone. More than 9,000 schools have closed and more than 1.9 million children in West and Central Africa have been forced out of school because of increasing violence in the region and attacks specifically targeting education facilities, UNICEF said Friday, saying it's triple the amount closed in 2017. Attacks on schools in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, where an Islamic extremist insurgency has grown, have doubled in the past two years, the agency said in its report, adding that those countries have seen a six-fold increase in school closures because of the violence.
"In many conflicts in this region, education is at the heart of the issue of these disputes. There is a mistrust toward what is perceived as western style education, so that means it is deliberately attacked," said an author of the report and UNICEF Johannesburg-based Chief of Communications Patsy Nakell. "These are regions that are already deprived in education and access to education for girls in particular."
School is also the one place where children of conflict still have joy and are challenged to learn new things, said Nakell who noted the trend as catastrophic. More than 2,000 schools are closed in Burkina Faso, along with more than 900 in Mali, due to an increase in violence across both countries, UNICEF said. In April 2017, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger had 512 schools closed and now they have a combined 3,005 since June 2019, the agency said. Islamic extremists in the region have spread attacks further and increased attacks along the border regions of these nations.
Insecurity in Cameroon's Anglophone regions has left more than 4,400 schools forcibly closed since 2017, UNICEF said. In Central African Republic, there was a 20 percent increase in attacks on schools, UNICEF said.
UNICEF has called on governments, armed forces, the international community and those who are a part of the conflict to "take concerted action to stop attacks and threats against schools, students, teachers and other school personnel in West and Central Africa - and to support quality learning for every child in the region."
Many of the gains that were made in these regions are now at risk, and more than 70 percent of emergency education programs are underfunded, said Nakell. "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 has worked with authorities to support what they call alternative learning opportunities. In Nigeria for example, the organization said basic education is being introduced into Quranic schools. In Burkina Faso and Cameroon, lessons are being broadcast, and children who have never been to school in Burkina Faso, and Congo can also now learn via radio.
In Mali, there are now community learning centers. The threats, however, remain. Father Arcadius Sawadogo of the Catholic Church in the insecure town of Dori in northern Burkina Faso says that education is key for the region.
"For us to develop, we need education. Especially for girls. Without education, our children are facing a future of joblessness and poverty. It is a catastrophe."