By Inna Lazareva
YAOUNDE, Feb. 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — The number of schools forced to shut in Africa's crisis-hit Sahel has doubled since 2017, depriving almost half a million children of education, the United Nations said on Thursday.
Almost 2,000 schools have been closed in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, as heightened security fears and poverty have left more than 400,000 children without education, the UN children's agency, UNICEF, said.
Some 10,050 teachers are unable to work or forced to flee their homes due to the crisis, UNICEF added.
The Sahel region has suffered violence in recent years from militant groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State, trafficking and the emergence of armed groups in one of the world's poorest regions.
"In Burkina Faso, there is an explosion of school closures," Francesca Bonomo, UNICEF's education specialist for West and Central Africa told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from the capital Ouagadougou.
Children who are not at school are at risk of being recruited into armed groups and being radicalised, said Eline Versluys, regional education coordinator for charity Save the Children.
"If this situation continues in the longer period, which we know is the case in the Sahel, we risk losing a whole generation that are not educated," Versluys said.
Girls who don't attend school are more likely to suffer violent abuse and attacks as well as being forced to marry early, she added, noting Niger already has the highest rate of child marriage in the world.
"The Islamists came to threaten the villagers, the teachers — they even set classrooms on fire," said Lawan Magagi, Niger's minister of humanitarian action and disaster management, describing the situation on the border with Burkina Faso.
Niger has taken preventative measures to move some pupils and teachers from the attack-hit areas to other parts of the country, Magagi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The northern region of Burkina Faso, bordering Mali and Niger, has been especially hard hit in the last 12 months as the government struggles to assert its authority since President Blaise Compaore was ousted in 2014 in a popular uprising.
Some 150,000 children are out of school and more than 1,000 schools have been forced to close due to armed attacks, according to the UN's humanitarian arm OCHA.
In northern Mali, more than 500 schools have closed due to insecurity, according to the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
Yet, while local governments are exploring ways to reopen the schools whenever it is possible and safe, it is no guarantee communities will be ready to accept this or that teachers will be available, UNICEF's Bonomo warned.
"A lot of children did not go to school in the first place even before this crisis," she said, citing high levels of poverty, child labor, and early marriage as reasons.
UNICEF is working with local governments to support alternative learning opportunities, including via radio. All three governments have committed to continue providing education during the armed conflict, UNICEF said.
(Reporting by Inna Lazareva; editing by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)