When 13-year-old Martine left her village in northern Burkina Faso for a safer town last year, she hoped to restart an education disrupted by jihadist violence. But, alone without her parents —who stayed behind — new risks soon arose: in December she was dragged from a wedding party and raped by a man three times her age.
“If I was living at home, my parents never would have allowed me to go to the wedding alone and this would never have happened,” said Martine, whose surname is being withheld to protect her identity.
As jihadist-linked violence surges in Burkina Faso, children are facing particularly severe hardships: more than half of the roughly one million Burkinabe now displaced across the country are 18 and under, and many have been forced out of school by attacks and threats from extremists.
Rights groups and local authorities say the situation is particularly dire for children like Martine, whose parents sent them away to towns where it is safer to go to school but, without parental supervision, are falling victim to exploitation and abuse from sexual violence to child marriage and labor.
The risks have been compounded by a nationwide shutdown of more than 20,000 schools, which was introduced in March as a response to the coronavirus pandemic and will continue until September. The closures have left an unknown number of minors alone and with little to do in unfamiliar places.
To help children who are out of school – due to both violence and the pandemic – Burkina Faso’s ministry of education has begun broadcasting primary and secondary school lessons on radio and TV.
But as students miss out on months of education – and some miss out on years due to violence ongoing since 2015 – the government and aid groups say remote schooling is no substitute for in-person learning and cannot combat the growing dangers many children are facing.
Aid groups say they are struggling to keep up with the increasing number of vulnerable children, although too little funding and too few programs – including those targeting unaccompanied minors – are in place.
“The epidemic of COVID-19 is worsening an already critical situation regarding the education of children who are trapped in an unprecedented humanitarian crisis,” said Anne Vincent, representative for the UN’s children agency in Burkina Faso, UNICEF.
‘A war against education’
Human Rights Watch has recorded more than 120 attacks and threats against teachers, students, and schools from 2017-2020 in what the organisation has described as a “war against education” by Islamist groups, which oppose Burkina Faso’s secular curriculum and government institutions.
School closures due to violence and COVID-19 have impacted more than five million children in total, according to UNICEF, while recent attacks have led to a ten-fold increase in the number of children needing protection this year, from 35,800 to 368,000.
Seeking a safer schooling environment and protection from jihadists – who often force families to hand over their sons to fight – thousands of children have been sent by their parents from small rural villages to more crowded urban centers in recent months.
In Boucle du Mouhoun, a northwestern breadbasket region where violence is currently spreading, many of the displaced children were living together in crowded compounds when The New Humanitarian visited in May. During the day they loitered on dusty streets and begged for money with empty cans.
Lassina Sougue, who heads the government’s humanitarian response efforts in Sourou, a province in Boucle du Mouhoun, told TNH that reports of sexual violence have increased since attacks drove thousands of children into the wider area over the last year, though he had no precise numbers.
School closures introduced to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have pushed many children – unaccompanied or otherwise – into menial work, added Marie Yelkouni, the coordinator of a group of organisations that fight for women’s rights in Kossi province, which is also in Boucle du Mouhoun.
Parents used to bring food and money to their children studying in other towns, Yelkouni said, but can no longer visit due to the threat of violence along the roads. This has forced many to work for under a dollar a day, washing clothes, selling goods, or toiling in small-scale artisanal mines.
Recent attacks have led to a ten-fold increase in the number of children needing protection this year, from 35,800 to 368,000.
Competition for the work is fierce, said 20-year-old Djakaria Kone, who left his parents and moved to a town in Sourou called Tougan in November 2018 to study. He now lives with 54 others, many of them displaced kids who are younger than him.
In March, Kone earnt $12 for three days making bricks and digging ditches along the main road in Tougan. But he hasn’t found another job since and has been surviving on meagre rations of government food aid.
“Schools are closed and I have no work,” he said. “When I wake up in the morning, I just walk around and don’t have anything to do.”
“Before we had our parents to help us, but now we have to fetch water and cook and do everything on our own,” added 17-year-old Seydou Koussoube, who moved to Tougan in September, a year after his school closed due to threats from jihadists.
Tent schools and TV lessons
Local organisations and private citizens said they are helping some displaced unaccompanied children – Martine was taken in by Yelkouni and enrolled in a state sponsored sewing program. But there is little support from the government, and most are slipping through the net.
UNICEF said it has “COVID-19 proof” programmes for unaccompanied children and other minors affected by conflict. Educational activities now take place in smaller groups, and individual counseling is offered to survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse.
But many humanitarian organisations are still new to Burkina Faso’s nascent emergency and have yet to establish programs focused on the exploitation of children, according to Jackie MacLeod, the International Rescue Committee’s head of mission in the country.
COVID-19 social distancing requirements have created additional challenges, MacLeod added, with safe spaces – areas run by aid groups where children can socialise and receive help in a supportive environment – creating risks for both children and caregivers.
“The usual systems that we would put in place to address the risk of exploitation for children...aren’t able to stand up the way they normally would [because of COVID-19],” said MacLeod.
In villages hard-hit by violence, the government has developed a strategy to help educate children by providing food, notebooks, extra classrooms, and money for teachers affected, said Angeline Neya, a government official leading the efforts.
Tented classrooms have been built and other buildings renovated to accommodate displaced children. Psychologists work with teachers and students affected by violence.
But Neya said there are many villages where the government is struggling to provide support due to the risk of violence. Even children with access to schools are often too afraid to attend because they fear future attacks.
In response to COVID-19, the government launched an additional $15 million plan in April to educate children through television shows and online classes. Millions of masks, soap bars, and bottles of disinfectant are, meanwhile, being rolled out for when schools reopen in September.
Local officials said they hope the start of the next term will bring unaccompanied children and other minors off the streets, though they acknowledged that the challenges they face will likely endure as long as the violence here does.
After Martine was attacked last year, she went back to school but was emotionally detached and even contemplated suicide, she said. Months on, she said flashbacks still haunt her: “I wish what happened to me never happens again.”
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