2015 Queen’s Young Leader, Joannes Paulus Yimbesalu recently went to Niger as part of a programme funded by the World Health Organisation (WHO) when the region was just recovering from the Ouagadougou terrorist attack. His visit aimed to improve the health and wellbeing of children in Niger. Here Joannes describes the experience and spells out why he believes education is vital for those in crisis-hit areas.
For me Women Economic Empowerment begins with a solid foundation in Education. Despite Education being a basic human right, 75 million children globally aged three to 18 years – living in 35 crisis-affected countries – are still in desperate need of educational support.
Niger is one of those countries. It faces a huge humanitarian crisis caused by increased food security, malnutrition, population movements, epidemics and natural disasters.
The terrorist actions of Boko Haram have displaced millions of people fleeing from insecurity in Nigeria and Niger. Over 213,000 people live in refugee camps in the Diffa region in Niger while another 54,000 refugees from Mali are in Niger. This has increased the strain on already insufficient basic services.
The vast desertification of the region, and the unemployed youthful population who were illiterate, was striking.
Visiting some villages I witnessed large numbers of street children who gathered at busy streets begging. Most of the out-of-school girls could often be seen fetching water or cooking, while the boys accompanied the animals to graze.
In conflict affected communities, socio-economic structures are destroyed while access to basic services such as education becomes difficult, fragmented or simply nonexistent. Out-of-school children become more vulnerable and are at risk of violence, forced labour and displacement. But education in humanitarian crisis situations continues to get the least funding.
Niger’s high fertility rate, at 7.6 births per woman, has exacerbated the out-of-school crisis. As part of the government’s effort to improve educational opportunities in Niger, schooling is now free. But the girl enrolment rate remains low due to child marriages whose prevalence is at 75%. Over a third of girls are married off before their 15th birthday.
Niger has the lowest literacy rate, with less than a third of adults capable of reading and writing. According to a UNICEF report of 2008-2012, the literacy rate among 15-24 years stood at 52.4% and 23.2% for boys and girls respectively. With an estimated 20 million people according to the 2014 census, Niger ranks 188 of 188 in the Human Development Index.
While trying to support access to education, the government faces a refugee crisis. Support from international organisations has only enrolled about 4,000 children in learning activities out of the estimated 18,000 school children. Demand continues to rise.
During my trip, I visited two primary schools in some of the hardest-to-reach communities. The excitement on the children’s faces was overwhelming. I received a warm welcome from the teachers and we donated writing materials to over 150 children. We encouraged them to dream big and – despite the many challenges – told them they should never give into radicalism.
The educational challenges we saw were enormous – no benches to sit on, a shortage of school teachers, and no writing materials. However, we played and laughed and even though there was no hope, the children’s smiles and resilience were the memories I took home with me.
In Niger, adolescent girls and children – and those living with disabilities – continue to face difficulties accessing education. This is due to extreme poverty, discrimination against girls, insecurity, physical distance, insufficient teachers, poor learning environments and the perception of the value of education.
Terrorist groups try to recruit young children through financial incentives, thus depriving them of their education. Some parents are scared to send their daughters to secondary schools in nearby towns due to safety concerns. My stay in Niger made me appreciate what it means to live in peace – something most of us take for granted.
Today many children have been torn from the arms of their mothers and families have been divided. For these children, education has long been neglected. We must act and act now.
Articles 28 and 29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child state “All children have the right to primary education, which should be free”. The right to education in conflict situations is further protected under international humanitarian law by the fourth Geneva Convention, and the 1951 Refugee Convention.
In May 2016, former UK prime minister and UN Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown joined UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, to launch the Education Cannot Wait Fund. This is an education crisis fund designed to transform the global education sector and includes measures to deliver education to millions of children in emergency situations.
Promoting education in fragile states promotes peace building and conflict mitigation. It fosters economic growth and poverty reduction. It can accelerate progress on children’s protection and wellbeing in and after emergencies, peacebuilding and state building, and a return to normality. And it reduces risks from – while building resilience to – disasters and climate change.
I therefore call on all governments to protect children in conflict zones. And I call on the international community to increase funding for education in emergencies which affect over 80 million children globally.