“ When we arrived in the camp, my friends and I were very happy to go to school every day. But we started being afraid to go because some armed people used to come and attack our school and take some girls away. Now we are not regularly in school.”
- Sarata, 14, internally displaced person in Burkina Faso.
Sarata’s story isn’t unusual. As a new report from the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack reveals, between 2015 and 2019 there were more than 11,000 reports of attacks on education or military use of educational facilities.
In conflicts around the world, students and educators are deliberately and indiscriminately killed, injured, recruited, raped, and abducted at, and on the way to school. As the new landmark report, which monitors attacks on education documents, girls and women were directly targeted in attacks because of their gender in 21 countries – often in the form of sexual violence or violent repression of girls’ education.
Lasting impacts on girls
Attacks on education can set in motion a range of negative impacts for girls and women, such as loss of education, child and forced marriage, early pregnancy, children born from war-time rape and the stigma associated with sexual violence. All of these long-term consequences dramatically affect female students’ futures, and often exacerbate pre-existing forms of gender discrimination and harmful practices.
The Sahel region of West Africa has been particularly affected by armed attacks on education. Upsurges in violence and insecurity in recent years have had a devastating impact on girls and boys safety across the region. As of February 2020, over 3,700 schools were closed in Mali and Burkina Faso, depriving over 728,000 children of education.
“I am really pessimistic about girls’ futures because there are no authorities and the situation is worsening."
- Community worker, Mali.
COVID-19 exacerbating situation
The impact of COVID-19, and measures to limit the spread of the virus across this fragile region are further exacerbating this situation. A sharp increase in attacks by Non-State Armed Groups has been recorded, as the current school closures and insecurity related to COVID-19, have been exploited, in the words of the UN Secretary General, as ‘a window of opportunity to strike’.
Adolescent girls across the Sahel already faced greater difficulty accessing and remaining in education than their male peers. With some of the highest rates of early marriage in the world, and the lower value afforded to girls’ education, only 1.7 percent of girls in crisis-affected parts of Mali complete secondary school.
As conflict and displacement have escalated across the Sahel, the barriers to girls’ education have become even more pronounced. Insecurity in and on the way to school and the closure of schools have increased the risks of violence and exploitation girls face and presented further impediments to their learning.
Girls value school but are scared to attend
In recent research by Plan International in Burkina Faso and Mali, adolescent girls recounted the destruction of their schools by armed groups and attacks on teachers.
Girls told us that even where schools remain open, they are afraid to attend, for fear of attacks in the school yard. One girl described an explosion on her way to school and her desire for her route to school to be more secure. As schools close down girls are at greater risk of not being allowed to return to education.
Yet even amidst these challenges and in spite of their fear, girls stressed their wish and determination to continue their education, along with their deep desire for peace and an end to conflict and insecurity.
This year marks the Fifth Anniversary of the Safe Schools Declaration, an intergovernmental political commitment to better protect education during armed conflict. 104 states, including almost all West African countries, have already taken the critical step of endorsing this Declaration.
However, these commitments need to be implemented at community level. Plan International, together with partners, makes a reality of the Safe Schools Declaration by working with communities to develop contingency plans for schools, promoting local peace building initiatives and engaging communities in dialogue about reopening closed schools.
We must push for action on safe schools
But more is needed. Girls who have overcome multiple obstacles to return to school after an attack often face significant barriers to returning to school, and suffer pervasive stigma, emotional distress, and trauma that negatively affects their learning outcomes. Many continue to feel insecure in school and on school routes long after the attack.
If girls across the Sahel are to realise their right to education, it is critical that governments maintain safe access to education during armed conflict and ensure that education sector plans are both gender responsive and conflict sensitive. This requires working with school communities, listening to girls’ experiences, including them and acting upon their views when developing strategies to prepare for, and reduce the risk of attacks, and maintain safe access to education during armed conflict.
Not least because they want to be there, as this 16-year-old girl from Bomborokuy in Burkina Faso told us:
"I go to school because I like a lot of things at school, I like all the teachers who are there, they teach us well.”
Read the report
Read the report from the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack.