Cameroon: Violent Conflict Sends 700,000 Children out of School
Going by the latest analysis by the United Nations humanitarian arm, OCHA, over 700,000 children have been impacted by school closures due to often brutal violence in Cameroon. And, two out of three schools are closed in the North-West and South-West regions of the country.
On November 24, four children and one teacher were killed in an attack in Ekondo Titi, in the South-West.
Early in November 2019, UN humanitarians pointed out that the ongoing violence in Cameroon has created a fast-growing humanitarian emergency affecting some 1.9 million people, a “15-fold increase since 2017”.
In Geneva, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) spokesperson, Marixie Mercado, explained that almost a million children were affected in the West African country, which until a few years ago was among the most settled and peaceful in the region.
Insecurity – and to a lesser degree, extremely poor road access – have left around 65 per cent of both regions out of bounds to aid workers, who’ve face increased attacks and risk of being taken hostage. “What began as a political crisis in the northwest and southwest regions is now a quickly deteriorating humanitarian emergency”, said Ms. Mercado, a reference to separatist clashes that began in late 2017, linked to alleged discrimination against the country’s English-speaking regions.
15-fold increase in needs since 2018
“Around 1.9 million people, about half of whom are children, are estimated to be in need, an increase of 80 per cent compared to 2018, and an almost 15-fold increase since 2017”, she insisted.
With security worsening in rural and urban areas, particularly in the northwest, UN humanitarian coordinating office, OCHA, insisted that human rights violations continue to be committed by both separatists and government forces.
“Arbitrary arrest, burning of villages and indiscriminate killing of civilians are conducted with impunity,” it said in its situation report then.
For a growing number of youngsters, the situation has deprived them of an education, with thousands of schools closed amid threats by separatists seeking leverage for a political solution to the crisis. “Three years of violence and instability in the northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon have left more than 855,000 children out of school”, said Ms. Mercado.
Children ‘living in fear
Thousands of youngsters “are living in fear”, she added. In all, nine in 10 primary schools – more than 4,100 – and nearly eight in 10 secondary schools (744) remain closed, or non-operational, in the troubled northwest and southwest since the start of the school year in September.
“Fear of violence has kept parents from sending their children to school and teachers and staff from reporting to work”, the UNICEF official explained.
In a bid to help children, who have been prevented from learning, community-run activities have been organised. UNICEF has also purchased educational books and other learning materials for 37,000 school-aged children, as well as broadcasting literacy and numeracy lessons by radio.
Security fears continue to hamper the work of humanitarians, however, with 529 recorded security incidents in the southwest and northwest since the beginning of the year, according to UNICEF. Since August 2019, this has meant that a growing number of aid organizations have faced hostage-taking and extortion situations, while five of the seven attacks against aid workers took place over the past two months.
“In the southwest region, access has improved slightly and we have been able to conduct more missions during the second quarter of the year compared to the first, and to reach places that haven’t been accessible for a year or more”, Ms. Mercado said.
Pupils face kidnapping on way to school
Condemning all attacks on aid workers and humanitarian supply teams, OCHA spokesperson, Jens Laerke, also highlighted the reported kidnapping of three schoolgirls last month, adding, “when armed groups like this kidnap students on the way to school that’s absolutely horrific and must be condemned.”
The OCHA spokesperson noted that lack of funding continues to be a major issue in Cameroon, with the $299 million appeal for 2019 only 41 per cent funded.
In May, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Michelle Bachelet, welcomed the government’s declared openness to work with the UN Human Rights Office, OHCHR, to seek effective solutions to the major human rights and humanitarian crises caused by the serious unrest and violence taking place in Cameroon.
In July 2018, UN rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said persistent reports of grave human rights abuses in Cameroon — including a widely shared video showing the alleged execution of a woman, child and baby — must be investigated by the authorities urgently.
Amid a backdrop of protests in the English-speaking north-west and south-west regions of the country that escalated in late 2017 into clashes between State military forces, and armed groups, Zeid condemned an ambush on a Government convoy that took place earlier this month.
But he cautioned that the government’s “heavy-handed response…will only make matters worse for the women, children and men caught in the middle”.
By then, the violence forced more than 21,000 people to flee to neighbouring countries, according to UN humanitarian staff, while 160,000 have been internally displaced, many reportedly hiding in forests to protect themselves.
“There are reports that armed elements have carried out kidnappings, targeted killings of police and local authorities, extortion and have torched schools”, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said. “There are also reports that Government forces are responsible for killings, the excessive use of force, burning down of houses, arbitrary detentions and torture.”
To prevent the situation from deteriorating further, Zeid urged the government to launch independent investigations into alleged violations by State security forces and abuses by armed elements. In a statement, the High Commissioner also noted serious violations in the far north of the country, where the authorities continue to confront the terrorist group Boko Haram.
Zeid said that he was “utterly appalled” by a video reportedly showing members of state armed forces executing a woman, a child and a baby who were accused of belonging to the separatist militants, and insisted the Government had an obligation to investigate the crime.
“I am deeply worried that these killings captured on camera may not be isolated cases,” he said.
Given the seriousness of the reported violence by State and armed actors, the UN official added that it was “regrettable” that the Government had failed to grant the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) access, despite repeated requests.
“We will now need to explore other options, including remote monitoring,” Zeid noted.
However, a recent lockdown imposed by a non-state armed group, from September 15 to October 2, limited access to basic services including health and education. Two out of three schools are closed in the North-West and South-West regions of the country. Last November 24, four children and one teacher were killed in an attack in Ekondo Titi, in the South-West.
When fully funded, the programme will provide approximately 250,000 children and adolescents with access to safe and protective learning environments in the most-affected areas.
Just last week, Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Jan Egeland, and the Director of Education Cannot Wait, Yasmine Sherif, had a joint visit to the country. In a statement, Ms. Sherif said the situation “is among the most complex humanitarian crises in the world today.”
“Children and youth are having to flee their homes and schools, are threatened with violence and kidnapping, and being forced into early childhood marriage and recruited into armed groups”, Ms. Sherif recalled.
Jan Egeland argued that “putting a schoolbag on your back shouldn’t make you a target”, but unfortunately children in Cameroon “risk their lives every day just showing up for school”, and declared, “Cameroon’s education mega-emergency needs international attention, not deadly silence by the outside world.”