African Governments Must Commit to Get Children Back to School!
On June 16th, 1976, black students from Soweto, South Africa marched in protest of poor-quality education. Some students paid the ultimate price by giving their lives to ensure that their basic right to education was recognized and fulfilled. Forty-five years later, as we celebrate The Day of the African Child, the right to education for every child, now guaranteed by the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, remains intangible for many children across Sub-Saharan Africa.
With over 260 million children out of school in Sub-Saharan Africa, following school closures linked to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, the education system has reached a breaking point. This education crisis will have huge consequences for children and for the entire continent.
It’s time to transform the education system and ensure the right to Education for African children.
In Somalia, our team met Farhiya, a 16-year-old girl with many dreams. She told us “When I grow up, I want to be a doctor, but I am worried about not completing my studies with school closure and the pandemic. There are children dropping out of school because they have either lost their source of income or their families cannot pay school fees or girls are married off during school closure.”
Before COVID 19, it was estimated that 100 million children like Farhiya were out of school in Sub-Saharan Africa, due to lack of investment, attacks on education, poor quality of the education system or persistent inequalities between rich and poor, girls and boys, rural and urban citizens.
To address these challenges, 42 countries in Africa now have the legal guarantee of free education at the primary level [i] which aims to make the dreams of children like Farhiya a reality. Despite the positive effects in Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Sierra Leone and many other countries, this legal guarantee for free education does not always cover the collateral cost nor a free access to education at the secondary level.
COVID-19 has pushed African Education Systems to the breaking point!
As a collateral long-term impact of the pandemic, the capacity of African countries to respond to children’s dreams to return to school is fast disappearing. While AU Member States have strived to invest at least 20% of their domestic budget in Education[ii], many of them have cut their public education budgets during the pandemic[iii].
From the onset of the pandemic, the AU Commission has convened with Education Ministers to share updates on the impact of the pandemic on education as well as good practices and lessons learned. But international solidarity will be needed to support African governments to build back better, ensure more equitable allocation of resources and ultimately adapt their existing systems to promote innovative ways to support resilient girls such as Farhiya to become the doctor Somalia and many other countries need. School closures didn’t just deny children their basic right to learn; it also exposed children to extremely harmful and vulnerable circumstances such as child labour, child marriage, teenage pregnancy, violence, and abuse.
Preexisting vulnerability should not be forgotten when rebuilding
Leave no one behind
In capital cities like Addis, Dakar, or Nairobi, it is not uncommon for breadwinners to support the financial education needs of children in their communities. Every month these financial earners subsidize a huge number of children who can not get access to the required funding they need for education. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of solicitations to ensure those children’s funding needs are met have significantly increased.
In southern Somalia, where schools have reopened recently, up to 73% of children have still not returned to class[iv].
Recently, we have met mothers and fathers impacted by the pandemic who are unable to pay school fees, as a result, their children have been forced to work and are pushed into precarious situations to help support the family.
Ensure safe education and protection for all
On a continent, where 179 million children - 1 in 4 – are living in conflict zones, there is a special need to get those children back to learning. In Burkina Faso, the epicenter of the education crisis in the Sahel, Salimata, told us: "I come from the village of Ban in the north of Burkina Faso. I’m the eldest of a family of 5 children. I came here to Ouahigouya last year to save my life. In my village, all the classes are closed. Several times, we were visited by armed men who forced us to stop classes. This situation has disrupted my studies and I’m having difficulty catching up. But, despite the difficulties, I have faith in the future and I hope to succeed in life to help my family.
Similarities between Salimata and Farhiya are many: They both lived-in low-income countries, they are young African girls, coming from modest families. But they are also living in countries which are facing a persistent crisis.In Somalia, more than three million children are out of school due to conflict and other crises[v], while in Burkina, Niger, and Mali close to 4000 schools were still closed in early 2021 as the result of conflict.
A special attention to the girls
The pandemic and the consistent attacks on schools have had terrible impact on children across Africa, but it’s been worse for girls like Salimata, Farhyia or Aminata from Sierra Leone, who used a small radio to follow her lessons through the Ebola and COVID-19 pandemic[vi]. We know, by experience that girls are more vulnerable than boys. In Africa roughly 4 girls in 10 are married before the age of 18, they face an increased risk of sexual and gender based violence, unwanted pregnancy and child marriage. A great deal of extra effort is needed to support the girls to get back to school and learning.
Looking ahead: A Few opportunities to build back better
Despite commitments made 30 years ago during its adoption, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child’s ambitions are more actual than ever and African Governments have a critical role to play:
- They first need to protect education finance, by maintaining their investment to pre-COVID level and invest at least 20% of their domestic finance to Education sector[vii].
- They need to develop Education plans, that integrate the needs of the most vulnerable children and protect them from any form of violence as prescribed in the charter.
- To be aligned with their Pan-African ambitions, African Union Member States need to roll out national plans to End Child Marriage to protect girls from all forms of violence including involuntary teenage pregnancy and allow them to return to school, wherever they are.
“My education is in danger. My future is in jeopardy. I’m a student in distress. There are few notions left for me. Boredom plays in my brain. And to express it, I have only these few words. My dear brothers and sisters’ hope must be our inspiration,” expressed Diaminatou Kanounté from Mali.
[iv] Topline findings for POST-COVID-19 assessment on education, Jan 2021; the enrollment decrease severely affected Lower Juba(-73.7%) Lower Shabele (-38.4%), Nugal (-33.8%) and Banadir(-17.3%)