Primary school is a dead end for many children in Somalia, particularly in the southwestern Gedo region where many end up jobless, joining a militia, or emigrating.
Years of civil conflict, following decades of colonial neglect, have produced grim educational statistics: nationally, about one in five children of primary school age actually goes to school, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Less than half go on to secondary school, an essential step for those wanting to attend university in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, or in the city of Kismayo.
Until an escalation in clashes between Islamist insurgents and Transitional Federal Government forces in 2009, a high school diploma opened doors in Somalia’s burgeoning telecommunications and other business sectors.
The headmaster of the 500-pupil primary school in the Gedo town of Buur Dhuubo, 480km southwest of Mogadishu, is pessimistic.
“Some of them will finish primary school but they don't have a chance for secondary school here," said Abdi Haji.
In Gedo, a region with more than half a million inhabitants, there is only a single secondary school.
"Most of the boys will stay in the town, return to the countryside, migrate to countries such as Yemen or join a militia," Haji said.
More and more children were dropping out because "they see the ones who have finished school idling on the street. It is unfortunate but after eight years they hit a dead end."
Job opportunities barely exist in Gedo, Haji noted, adding that many youngsters joined armed groups such as the TFG forces, Islamist insurgents or criminal gangs.
One civil society worker who deals with children told IRIN that children in Mogadishu were able to avoid recruiters because schools were more numerous and the city large enough to make encounters with recruiters less common.
“But in a place such as a small town in Gedo, if the child is not in school he would be a prime target for recruitment into armed groups,” he said, asking not to be identified.
“Sometimes the children join these armed groups out of wanting to belong to something and they provide three meals a day,” he added.
According to a UNICEF statement released in May 2010, “recent reports indicate that children as young as nine years of age are being used by multiple armed groups across Somalia, and that some schools are being used as recruitment centres”.
Determined to learn
Despite the lack of opportunity, students in Gedo are keen to continue their education.
"I finished primary school [in Buur Dhuubo] in 2007 and up to now I can't go to secondary school," said Mohamed Farah Dahir, 17. Some of his friends have travelled to Yemen, others have joined militias.
"I have been approached by a militia but I told them I am going off to school in another town," he said.
Kheyro Muhumud Abdullahi's three children have completed primary school but are now idle.
"I don't want my boy to go to Yemen or join a militia or my two girls getting married at an early age," she said, adding that she could not afford to send them to school elsewhere.
Abdullahi said she was hoping "someone will build a school here, so I don't have to worry about my children".
Aden Abdullahi, in Luuq town, told IRIN the problem of uneducated youth is “killing our country".
"Without an educated youth Somalia will never recover," said the deputy head of Luuq primary school. "The choice is the pen or the gun. I want our youngsters to choose the pen and have a decent opportunity for a normal life," he added.
Barlin Mohamed Hashi, 18, completed primary school in 2006 and has been at home since then. "I am at home doing nothing; I am fighting off men who want to marry me."
But she was not ready to get married yet. "I want to continue with my education and become a gynaecologist," she told IRIN. There was a great need for doctors in her community, she said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions