DAKAR (AlertNet) – Thousands of children in northern Mali risk being recruited by armed groups after schools were forced to close because of conflict and instability in the region, aid groups have warned.
Children were forced to leave school and flee their homes with their parents after Tuareg rebels launched an uprising in mid-January. The rebels declared an independent homeland in the north in April, following a military coup in the southern capital Bamako.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says many schools were ransacked and teachers had to leave.
Local groups working with the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have reported that some school buildings are still occupied by rebels, increasing the likelihood of children being recruited by armed groups.
“We have reports from the ground that it could be that 1,000 children have been recruited (by armed groups),” UNICEF’s representative in Mali Theophane Nikyema told AlertNet.
Aid agencies say safety concerns are limiting their access to the country’s north, and their ability to assess the situation on the ground. The region is now under the control of separatists and militant Islamist groups.
“Some parents have demonstrated and called for the opening of schools for the sake of their children to sit for examinations,” Nikyema said on the phone from Bamako, Mali’s capital city.
Up to 40 schools have re-opened, accommodating more than 3,000 children, and local nongovernmental organisations have set up a communication system to relay information on school-age children and to encourage their parents to send them to school where possible, the United Nations said.
“The concern we also have is that the conditions for reopening schools in the north is that children be separated – girls separated from boys…basically the introduction of the Sharia (Islamic) law,” Nikyema added.
For many parents, the solution is to send their children to the south, particularly those who are due to take end of year exams.
Mali’s ministry of education says it has put in place a flexible timetable for examinations to allow children from the north to sit the exams.
More than 6,000 internally displaced children from the north of Mali are known to have enrolled in schools in the south, according to UNICEF.
Mali’s education ministry is carrying out further assessments to identify other children who have fled the north to the south and to develop strategies to accommodate them in schools.
“The schools have received instructions to allow them to register which is good, but with 6,000 students relocated to the south this has put an additional strain on the education system in the south,” Nikyema said.
Even before fighting erupted, Mali’s education system was struggling with overcrowded classrooms and a lack of teaching materials and affordable textbooks.
UNICEF plans to introduce recreational activities in schools hosting displaced children and offer psychosocial support for those who have experienced trauma. The agency has appealed for international assistance to fund these projects, Nikyema said.