In a country where half the population is under the age of 15, almost half of all children are not in school. It’s a crisis that doesn’t make the headlines. Why are so many of Niger’s children missing out on the vital right to education?
Abena joins her classmates in breathing exercises – a technique used to help children overcome stress and trauma. Photo: Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC
By, Rebecca Crombleholme
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world, with more than 10 million people living in extreme poverty. However, over the past few decades, the rate of education has progressed significantly. In 1973, only 11 percent of children were going to school. By 2017, the number had risen to 66 percent. Now, the trend is declining. Currently, just 58 percent of Niger’s children are going to school. This sudden reversal of progress is devastating. But why is it happening?
The spread of violence
Tillabéri is the westernmost region of Niger. Over the past five years, violence between armed groups in neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali spilled over into Tillabéri. Since then, the fighting has spread and intensified. Around 1,700 civilians were killed in Niger in 2021. There has also been a dramatic increase in kidnappings, thefts, and threats.
The violence is causing mass displacement, with more than 150,000 people having fled their homes in the Tillabéri region alone. Across the country as a whole, the figure is close to 400,000. Children being repeatedly uprooted from their homes is one major barrier to them attending school. And violence does not just affect people, but the schools themselves. Close to 900 schools have been forced to close because of the violence.
Unable to focus
Half a million children living in conflict zones in Niger need humanitarian assistance to access education. But opening classrooms is not enough. These children must have the chance to work through the trauma they’ve been forced to witness.
“It is clear that our children are stressed and anxious. Some of them wake up at night because of nightmares, others cry erratically,” says Aanan, a parent representative from Tillabéri.
Traumatic incidents can have a negative impact on a child’s ability to learn. In 2021, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) conducted an assessment into children’s well-being. Almost half of the children we spoke to in Niger said that they were unable to concentrate fully at school.
“The desire to learn should never be trumped by the need to hide,” says Marta Schena, NRC’s education specialist for the Central and West Africa region. “These children have witnessed or endured multiple kinds of violence leading to chronic stress and trauma. It is our duty to help them rediscover the language of innocence, joy, and curiosity.”
Missing that critical piece of paper
Idriss Eliassou is an education adviser for NRC in Tillabéri. He says that “when [the displaced children] come, some of them, because of their trauma, forget their own name”. A classroom can give a child a sense of normality and safety and provide a space for them to recover from what they have witnessed. But completing primary school, and receiving a diploma to prove it, is not possible without one critical document – a birth certificate. And this is something that many children in Niger don’t have.
Nearly three out of four people displaced within Niger report that they lack birth certificates for their children who have been born in displacement. This is not only a barrier to education but also to healthcare and freedom of movement. That small piece of paper can change the course of a child’s life. In 2022, NRC enabled more than 12,000 people to get birth certificates. But many are still waiting.
With poverty comes hunger
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world, consistently ranking among the lowest countries in terms of average income per person. Amid the violence and insecurity, income opportunities are scarce.
Access to food is not guaranteed and is dwindling. Two million people in Niger are currently severely food insecure. This means that two million people don’t know where they will get their next meal from. This number is projected to peak at close to 3 million next “lean season” (the period between harvests, from May to August).
Hunger hinders learning. Children are unable to concentrate fully on an empty stomach. And it’s common for families in this situation to take their children out of school so that they can work. This is often the family’s only option if they want everyone to eat that day. The food crisis is not just affecting Niger. Other countries in the region of Africa known as the Central Sahel are also facing similar challenges.
Young people are the future
Niger has the youngest population on earth. Here, there are millions of children with potential.
But as the world continues to neglect this crisis, more and more young people are entering adulthood feeling they have been let down. In 2021, 71 percent of children we spoke to for an assessment in Niger said they had little or no hope for the future. Donor countries, national authorities, and the humanitarian community must find a way forward to create a safe environment for internally displaced people, refugees, and host communities in Niger and across the Central Sahel.
If education is a human right, why should the children of Niger not have access to it?