BAMAKO, MALI— In Mali and throughout West Africa, the school year started a few weeks ago. However, aid workers say the vast majority of children in the militant-controlled northern region are not able to go school -- which may help recruitment for local armed groups.
The education ministry and international aid agencies say they are scrambling to meet the needs of children affected by the conflict. The region fell to al-Qaida-linked Islamist militants in April.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says at least 450,000 northerners have fled into neighboring countries or into the government-held south since the start of the year. Those who remain in the north are living under the strict rule of the militants.
“Information is coming out in bits and pieces, but we still don’t have the full scope of understanding of what’s going on for education in the north," explained Tom Mccormack, the Sahel Regional Director for aid group Save the Children USA. "But we’re very concerned that education is not being provided as it should for all children. In addition, we’re concerned that funds that need to be made available to assist children, particularly those who have been displaced by the fighting, have not been made available, especially for education in this emergency response that we and other actors on the ground here are trying to respond to.”
Save the Children says education is out of reach for the majority of school children in the occupied territory.
The group is part of the U.N.-created Education Cluster, which is coordinating the emergency response in Mali.
The Education Cluster surveyed 25 organizations in the north. Three-quarters said local schools have been vandalized, looted or destroyed. Half of the organizations reported that teachers had fled to the south, while one-third reported that the schools are occupied by armed groups.
Save the Children says flooding has damaged an additional 290 schools across the country, affecting 60,000 children. However, funding for assistance remains low.
“Last year’s consolidated humanitarian appeals process was funded at four percent," said Joa Keis, information manager and co-leader for the Education Cluster. " I think that given the potential for this emergency to turn into a chronic long-term emergency, I think it’s very important that donors realize the importance that education is going to play in maintaining vital social functions and the livelihoods of children throughout this ongoing emergency.”
The Education Cluster previously estimated that only 20 percent of 300,000 students have fled northern Mali. They said the remaining 240,000 kids have little to no access to education, leaving them at risk of recruitment into armed groups.
Human rights groups say armed Islamist groups in the north are actively recruiting children as young as 12 years old into their ranks.
The United Nations estimates that at least 175 children were recruited into armed groups between April and June of this year, although many people consider those estimates to be conservative.
Keis says the lack of school increases the risk.
“It’s been shown that out-of-school children are particularly vulnerable to falling into the hands of armed groups given the situation in northern Mali. With the presence of several armed groups controlling the area it is particularly important that we use education as a means of protecting children from this vulnerability and the potential for ongoing use of child soldiers in northern Mali," Keis said.
Islamist militants in control of the north have been implementing their own harsh brand of Sharia law.
Teachers and local organizations say they have been on their own in reaching tough compromises with armed groups to keep the remaining schools operating.
Certain subjects, such as philosophy and biology, are often not allowed. Girls and boys must often be separated. Certain schools are only allowed to teach in Arabic, a language most of the pupils do not speak.
However, both students and teachers say they are determined to continue their education.