Targeted attacks on education pose a continuous threat in Central Sahel

An abandoned school in Burkina Faso after an attack by an armed group An abandoned school in Burkina Faso after an attack by an armed group © Philip Kleinfeld/TNH

This article is a brief presentation of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack report on armed attacks against schools in Central Sahel

The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GPEA) is a coalition of organizations created in 2010 to address the problem of targeted attacks on schools and other educational facilities in armed conflicts. In a briefing paper issued in September 2020, the GPEA underlines the negative impact of targeted attacks on education in Central Sahel. Besides causing casualties and injuries, targeted attacks on schools and similar facilities undermine access to quality education and have permanent consequences on peace and development as well.

According to the GPEA’s report, attacks on education by armed groups are currently rising in Central Sahel. In the first six months of 2020, GPEA reported over 90 attacks on education in the region and the risks faced by students and education personnel are likely to increase as schools and universities will open again after Covid-19 related closures. The number of targeted attacks on education in Central Sahel was already alarming: between 2015 and 2019, the GPEA collected over 430 reported attacks on education facilities. The reported attacks, usually perpetrated by government-opposing armed groups, targeted government schools and consisted of threatening, abducting or killing teachers, as well as damaging educational facilities. As reported by Human Rights Watch, students were usually in class when such attacks occurred, even though they were not typically the targets. Schools were also used by both State and non-State forces for military purposes, as noted by the report. 

Despite school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, attacks on education continued in the first half of 2020 as well. More specifically, among the Central Sahel countries, Burkina Faso experienced the highest number of incidents between January and July, with over 40 reported attacks. As the report underlines, attacks on education usually have a heavier impact on women and girls. As a matter of fact, female victims of such attacks might have to face premature and forced pregnancies due to rape and forced marriage, besides a strong social stigma which makes it less likely for them to return to school after an attack. The report shows that attacks resumed as soon as schools began to reopen in Central Sahel: for instance, two weeks after their reopening, two secondary schools in Niger were forced to close again as they were threatened by armed groups. As reported by both international and local media sources, at least 18 schools were burned in Burkina Faso between June and July, right after they reopened, while 27 middle schools were attacked in Mali last June. As the GPEA report suggests, governments of the Central Sahel region should note that fewer reported armed attacks during the pandemic do not necessarily indicate a reduced risk of such incidents. 

The report suggests that governments should begin to prepare now for safe and inclusive returns to school, observing the previous patterns of attacks on education in order to learn from the past. For instance, data shows that the attacks are more frequent at the beginning of new school years since one of their main purposes is warning against schools reopening. On the contrary, no attacks were reported during the school holidays. Moreover, non-state armed groups operating in different countries of the Central Sahel region follow similar tactics, allowing governments to cooperate with each other. Thus, the GPEA recommends to governments, donors and humanitarian actors to strengthen regional cooperation as well as peer-to-peer exchange of good practices. As the beginning of the school year in October approaches, governments should reinforce their distance learning policies where insecurity is preventing schools from reopening. The involved actors should prioritize and fund proper measures to prevent and respond to attacks on education such as security plans, risk assessments and information campaigns. Governments should also refrain from using school facilities for military purposes at all times. Finally, the report recommends investigating and duly prosecuting perpetrators. 


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Author: Margherita Curti; Editor: Matteo Consiglio

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