In times of conflict and war, school-aged children could have their futures defined by whether or not they can access education amid ongoing violence.
Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray is in the midst of a war that has impacted millions of lives and affected neighboring regions, Amhara and Afar. The war — which has forced citizens to flee, has tipped the region into famine, and has barricaded humanitarian aid from reaching the most vulnerable — has now been going on for about 11 months.
As the beginning of the school season draws nearer, safely reopening schools, making education accessible, and protecting children from the impacts of violence in the affected regions is a priority for aid agencies.
“As schools prepare to reopen in early October in most parts of the country, in Tigray and the bordering regions of Afar and Amhara, where the conflict has expanded, education remains at a standstill,” Director of Education Cannot Wait, Yasmine Sherif, told Global Citizen.
Children in Tigray have remained out-of-school since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, and as a result of the ongoing violence, school infrastructure has not only been destroyed and looted, but it has also been exploited by all sides throughout the conflict.
Education Cannot Wait (ECW) has been advocating for safe access to education for children in all three conflict-hit areas — Tigray, Afar, and Amhara — and has worked with partners to help alleviate the issue, having allocated an education in emergency grant of $1 million to reach 20,000 children.
This is on top of ECW’s existing “multi-year resilience” education programs in Ethiopia, which work to improve education infrastructure in the country in a way that’s long-term and sustainable. While this is an essential step, the agency has highlighted a funding gap for these programs and has called on world leaders to step up funding and to prioritize the protection of children and their right to education.
What Impact Is the Conflict Having on Children’s Education?
According to the United Nations, an estimated 1.4 million children have not been able to access education since March 2020, as a result of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing war. Not only have they missed out on school, but they are also missing out on other essential benefits that schools provide.
“For children in emergencies, education is about more than the right to learn,” explains Sherif. “Schools protect children from the physical dangers around them — including abuse, exploitation, and recruitment into armed groups.”
She added: “They provide children with lifesaving food, water, health care, and hygiene supplies. And they offer psychosocial support, giving children stability and structure to help them cope with the trauma they experience every day.”
UNICEF also highlighted this at a media briefing in April, with spokesperson James Elder adding that the crisis in Tigray is resulting in a “disturbing picture of severe and ongoing child rights violations.”
What Will It Take to Get Kids Back in Schools?
Getting children back to school is a multi-pronged issue that not only involves restoring resources and infrastructure destroyed in the war, but most importantly, protecting children and prioritizing their safety.
According to Ethiopia’s Minister of Education an estimated 7,000 schools in Tigray have been damaged in the war so far. Human Rights Watch also reports that several schools in the area have been looted, and some have even been occupied by perpetrators of the conflict.
It’ll take a great deal of funding, planning, and cooperation to make sure that children can access school, with Sherif explaining that for immediate re-opening of schools, temporary learning centers would need to be established in place of wrecked school infrastructure. She also broke down what else is needed to resume learning in crisis areas, including:
Globally, all countries need to sign and implement the Safe Schools Declaration to protect children, teachers, and other education personnel in conflict-affected areas, to ensure education can continue unhindered, and to deter the military use and occupation of schools.
The relevant authorities must protect schools in Afar, Amhara, and Tigray from coming under attack — which, Sherif highlighted, is an “internationally recognized grave violation against children’s rights.
Education authorities must expand alternative learning pathways for out of school girls and boys, including adolescents, while also supporting safe school reopening protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
How Do School Closures Contribute to Extreme Poverty?
Children also depend on school for so much more than education, however, including safety, nutrition through school feeding programs, and mental health support. Education helps to define children’s futures and shape them into contributing citizens, who have the potential to lead the world and help tackle some of its greatest challenges.
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This article is a part of OkayAfrica’s Crossroads, a special series supported by Global Citizen examining Global Africa at critical moments. For the first part of the Crossroads series, Global Citizen is joining OkayAfrica in four weeks of coverage examining Ethiopia through a deep dive into music, politics, and culture.
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