Schools, universities, students, teachers, and academics in West and Central Africa have suffered over 2,500 attacks over the past 5 years, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) said in a 300-page report released on Thursday. Nine countries from the region are included in the report, Education under Attack 2020, which details the systematic targeting of teachers and students, the excessive use of force against university student and staff protests, and the use of schools by armed forces and non-state armed groups for bases or training grounds.
More than 11,000 attacks on education occurred globally between 2015 and 2019 with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Yemen the most heavily affected. Attacks on education include bombing and burning schools and universities, and killing, maiming, raping, abducting, arbitrarily arresting, and recruiting students and educators at or en route to and from educational institutions by armed forces, other state actors, or armed groups during armed conflict or insecurity.
“Pursuing an education is a fundamental right, yet in West and Central Africa, the lives of students and educators are at risk simply for teaching and learning,” said Diya Nijhowne, executive director of GCPEA. “Schools and universities should be safe havens, not sites of destruction or fear.”
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GCPEA found that the number of countries experiencing attacks on education has increased in recent years. Between 2015 and 2019, 93 countries experienced at least 1 reported attack on education, up from 74 countries in the previous reporting period of 2013-2017. In West and Central Africa, GCPEA recorded isolated attacks on education in 10 additional countries in the region, including Benin, Chad, Ghana, and Senegal.
Attacks on education emerged in new countries throughout the region. In Burkina Faso and Niger, which had only been minimally affected in prior years, attacks on schools and school personnel rose starkly, contributing to the closure of more than 2,000 schools. Non-state armed groups operating in these two countries carried out many of these attacks. In Guinea, law enforcement used excessive and lethal force on school and university students and staff demonstrating for education reforms.
Students or teachers were the target of direct attacks throughout the region. In Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria, non-state armed groups abducted, threatened, or killed students and teachers, often to incite fear and to interfere with government operations. In Cameroon, where separatists in the Anglophone region had ordered government schools closed, over 700 school students and teachers were killed, injured, arrested, or harmed over the past 5 years. In one example, in February 2019, armed separatists abducted over 170 students and teachers from a secondary school in northwest Cameroon.
Attacks on higher education were reported in 73 countries globally. In many cases, law enforcement and military forces used excessive, even lethal, force to disperse university students and staff protesting on campuses or over education-related grievances. In Nigeria, GCPEA collected over 30 reports of attacks on higher education between 2017 and 2019, including bombings at a university and the detention or injury of over 100 students and staff.
Armed groups or armed forces also targeted schools to recruit children. In the past five years, state armed forces or armed groups reportedly recruited students from schools in 17 countries. In Burkina Faso, Burundi, DRC, and Nigeria, non-state armed groups reportedly used schools as recruitment sites, sometimes during or in the aftermath of attacks on schools.
A significant – and preventable – cause of attacks was the use of schools for military purposes, GCPEA found. Armed forces, other state actors, and armed groups used schools and universities for military purposes in 34 countries between 2015 and 2019, including as bases, detention centers, and weapons stores. This included eight countries from the West and Central Africa region, with Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, DRC, and Nigeria most affected during this period.
Armed forces, security forces, or armed groups were reportedly responsible for sexual violence in or on the way to or from schools and universities in at least 17 countries in the past 5 years.
The overall number of attacks globally declined slightly from the 2013-2017 reporting period, from 12,700. In 2015-2019, attacks on education decreased in approximately 10 countries. Nigeria, for one, experienced a significant decrease in attacks from the previous period; attacks on schools and students occurred more frequently in the Central region but declined in the Northeast.
Attacks on education not only kill or injure individual students and teachers, they also impact communities for years. With buildings or teaching materials destroyed and students and teachers living in fear, schools and universities close and some students never resume their education, impeding long-term development.
Attacks on education have specific impacts on female students and educators. GCPEA found that women and girls were targeted due to their gender in at least 21 countries between 2015 and 2019. In Nigeria and DRC, GCPEA found that pregnancy from rape, the health consequences and stigma of sexual violence, the risk of early marriage, and the privileging of boys’ education over girls’ all make it particularly difficult for girls to return to school after attacks on education.
Governments and armed groups should end attacks on education and refrain from using schools and universities for military purposes, GCPEA said. Governments need to hold those responsible for attacks to account, develop gender-responsive safety and security plans to prevent and respond to attacks, and strengthen monitoring and reporting of attacks on education. Donors, international organizations, and civil society should support governments in these endeavors.
GCPEA called on countries to endorse and implement the Safe Schools Declaration, a political commitment to protect students, educators, schools, and universities in armed conflict. It has 104 total signatories, including 14 countries in the region. By endorsing the declaration, countries commit to taking concrete steps to protect education in armed conflict, including by using the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.
“As we mark the fifth anniversary of the Safe Schools Declaration this year, Senegal, Togo, Ghana, Gabon, and other West and Central African states should endorse and use the declaration to ensure that girls and women, as well as men and boys, can learn and teach in safety,” Nijhowne said. “Perpetrators of attacks on education in armed conflict and insecurity must be brought to justice so the right to education can be secured for everyone.”