More and more schools in Central African Republic (CAR) have re-opened their doors since the government declared 20 November 2014 as the official start of the new school year. However, attacks on schools are still robbing thousands of children of an education.
This year’s reopening of schools was not easy for any of us working in education in CAR – especially the teachers in hotspots where violence is pervasive. The new school year had to be postponed following major unrest in Bangui in October, which put the capital on lock-down for nearly three weeks. While we celebrated the official opening of schools in late-November, we became concerned by an increasing number of attacks reported by members of the Education Cluster, a forum of education organizations present across the country, led by UNICEF and Cordaid. Such attacks included threats or physical violence against teachers and students; and occupation or pillaging of school buildings by armed groups.
In total, the Education Cluster has recorded attacks on 109 schools since 2013. Only to cite a few known cases, recently armed men assaulted a school in Bangui and locked up teachers and students to pillage school supplies. Armed men pillaged the school canteen in another school. A headmaster in northwestern province was beaten up by an armed group because he authorised the reopening of his school. Several other schools were occupied by military forces. All attacks on schools are considered as a grave violation against children, under international law.
One attack can have serious long-term consequences. Schools become perceived by students and their parents as places to avoid, instead of places to come to learn and play. The long-term efforts to re-open a school can be lost as the fear caused by an attack spreads quickly among the community.
Children are particularly affected. Henri*, 11, from western CAR, was walking to school when armed men started to shoot in the air close by.
“I don’t want to go to school anymore,” he said.
Another girl, Grace*, saw armed men kill a child when she was leaving school one afternoon. Like Henri, she said she was scared to return to class.
One of the first steps to reduce attacks against schools is to collect and report on them. The Education Cluster has been systematically recording these attacks as grave violations against children, and we have urged education organisations in the country to report all incidents to us. We are also verifying, analysing and sharing this information with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the UN Peacekeeping Mission, and the UNICEF-led taskforce on Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism to advocate for increased protection of schools.
Now is a crucial period for CAR after two years of conflict. Education can help rebuild a society by promoting tolerance and social cohesion. Leaving schools vulnerable to attacks means abandoning the future of young generations. Many children have already lost two years of school, and others have never had the chance to go to school. Even before the crisis, there were not enough schools and teachers for all children.
I have visited schools abandoned after attacks, and it’s heartbreaking: broken windows, debris of stolen school benches, bullet marks on the roof and destroyed walls. Looking at the dusty blackboard with chalk traces of French words, one could imagine students were once in the room in a French class. You or your children probably did not have to risk your lives to go to school or take a class in the presence of armed men. Sadly, that’s the reality for many students in CAR. The Education Cluster’s work against attacks on schools will continue until all the children in CAR can safely attend schools, discover the joy of learning, and prepare for a better future.
Ye Ra Kim is an information manager with the UNICEF education team. The Education Cluster in CAR is a platform of education organizations working across the country including the Ministry of Education, UN agencies, national and international non-governmental organisations, and donors. The Cluster is responsible for ensuring a coherent, coordinated and effective response under the current humanitarian crisis.