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Burkina Faso: Crises push children out of school and into harm’s way (The New Humanitarian)

When 13-year-old Martin left her village in northern Burkina Faso for a safer town last year, she hoped to restart her education, which had been disrupted by extremist violence. But, alone and without her parents, new risks soon arose. In December, she was dragged from a wedding party and raped by a man three times her age.

She says, “If I was living at home, my parents never would have allowed me to go to the wedding alone and this would have never happened.” Martine’s surname is being withheld to protect her identity.

As extremist violence surges in Burkina Faso, children are facing particularly severe hardships. Of the roughly one million Burkinabe now displaced across the country, roughly half are under 18. Many have been forced out of school by attacks and threats from extremists.

Rights groups and local authorities say the situation is particularly dire for children like Martine, whose parents sent them away to towns where it is safer to go to school but, without parental supervision, are falling victim to exploitation and abuse. This includes sexual violence, child marriage, and child labour.

The risks are compounded by a nationwide shutdown of schools, introduced in March as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. Schools will be closed until September.

The ministry of education has begun broadcasting primary and secondary school lessons on television and radio to support children. But remote schooling is no substitute for in-person learning, according to government and aid groups, and does little to address the other dangers children face.

Aid groups say they are struggling to keep up with the increasing number of vulnerable children, with too little funding and too few programs in place.

Anne Vincent is the representative for the UN’s children agency, UNICEF, in Burkina Faso. She says, “The epidemic of COVID-19 is worsening an already critical situation regarding the education of children who are trapped in an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.”

According to UNICEF, recent attacks have led to a ten-fold increase in the number of children needing protection this year, growing to 368,000. Human Rights Watch recorded more than 120 attacks and threats against teachers, students, and schools from 2017 to 2020 in what the organization calls a “war against education” by Islamist groups that oppose Burkina Faso’s secular curriculum and government institutions.

To find a safer schooling environment and protection from extremists, thousands of children have been sent from small rural villages to more crowded urban centres. Boucle du Mouhoun is an agriculturally productive region in northwestern Burkina Faso where violence is currently spreading. Many displaced children are living in crowded compounds. During the day, they loiter on dusty streets and beg for money with empty cans.

Lassina Sougue leads the government’s humanitarian response efforts in Sourou, a province in Boucle du Mouhoun. He says that reports of sexual violence have increased since attacks drove thousands of children into the wider area in the last year.

Marie Yelkouni is the coordinator of a group of organizations that fight for women’s rights in Kossi province, also in Boucle du Mouhoun region. She says that the school closures introduced to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have pushed many children into menial work. She adds that parents used to bring food and money to their children studying in towns, but can no longer visit due to the threat of violence along the roads. This has forced many children to work for less than a dollar a day, washing clothes, selling goods, or toiling in small-scale artisanal mines.

Seydou Koussoube is 17. He moved to Tougan in Sourou province in September, a year after his school closed due to threats from extremists. He says, “Before, we had our parents to help us, but now we have to fetch water and cook and do everything on our own.”

UNICEF says its programs are still running during the COVID-19 crisis. Educational activities take place in smaller groups and individual counseling is offered to survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse. But physical distancing requirements related to COVID-19 are creating additional challenges for many organizations.

In response to COVID-19, the government launched a $15 million plan in April to educate children through television shows and online classes. Millions of masks, soap bars, and bottles of disinfectant are being rolled out in preparation for schools reopening in September.

Local officials said they hope the start of the next term will get unaccompanied children and other minors off the streets, though they acknowledge that the challenges they face will likely endure as long as the violence lasts.

This story was adapted from an article originally written by Sam Mednick for The New Humanitarian, titled “In Burkina Faso, violence and COVID-19 push children out of school and into harm’s way.” Read the full story: https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news-feature/2020/07/07/Burkina-Faso-children-coronavirus-jihadists-Sahel [1]