Millions of children at risk as UN fears genocide in Burundi

Children in conflicts, Education in emergencies

A child prays at a memorial service for victims of the conflict

The central African country of Burundi has been rocked by violence over the past few months. Since protests began in April after the president’s bid to stay on for a third term, at least 240 people have been killed, some of them children.

Bodies are being dumped on the streets of the capital Bujumbura and more than 215,000 people have fled into neighbouring countries. Another 15,000 are internally displaced, says the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.

Fearing a genocide like the one in neighbouring Rwanda, the United Nations has stepped in and urged all sides to engage in peace talks. It has warned of action against those who incite further violence. 

Like the Rwandan conflict that claimed an estimated 800,000 lives in 1994, the violence in Burundi is set against a backdrop of tensions between Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups.

But what of Burundi’s children? What is life like for them and how is their education being affected by the worst conflict to hit their country since the 12-year civil war that resulted in 300,000 deaths ended in 2005?

Just under half of Burundi’s population of 10.4 million are under 18 – and almost one in five Burundians is aged under five.

It is the second poorest country in the world, with 67% living below the poverty line. Three in five children have stunted growth due to malnutrition.

A Burundian child eats at a refugee camp in Carama

In 2007, the government made primary school education mandatory for all – from age seven to 12. The percentage of primary-age children attending school before the latest conflict began was 85%, according to the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF. Of the 15% who were not in school, there was virtually a 50-50 split between boys and girls.

According to a 2014 report by the United States Department of Labor, 27% of children – more than 633,000 – were working and 26% of those aged seven to 14 were combining work and school. Most worked in “cash crops” such as tea, coffee, cotton and sugarcane.

A new school in Gitukura built with help from war widows and veterans in 2009 Picture: UN Development Programme

Between 1999 and 2012, Burundi was the best-performing country in sub-Saharan Africa at enrolling children in primary school. UNESCO statistics showed it more than doubled the proportion of primary-age children in school from the original 41%.

Between 2003 and 2013, there was an average of 14.1% growth in secondary school enrollment, thanks in part to funding from the Global Partnership for Education.

Burundi introduced a seventh primary school grade, which allowed more than 145,000 students to stay in school rather than drop out in secondary.

Students at start of school year in 2013 Picture: Norad

The Child-Friendly Schools model originated by the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF – which focuses on the overall needs of the child and respects their rights – was adopted in 2012 by the education ministry.

Augustin Ndabunganire, Chairman of the Management Committee of Gakora Primary School, said: “Girls used to hide themselves behind boys in classroom. But thanks to the new approach, things are changing. The girls sit in front and work in groups with the boys.”

The return in recent years of Burundian refugees from earlier conflicts has put a huge strain on the education system – and UNICEF says there is now an average of 72 children in each primary school classroom and a lack of basic materials including text books.

A makeshift school in Mabayi in 2010 Picture: UN Development Programme

But that flow of refugees started to move in the opposite direction when the violence flared up earlier this year. In June Save The Children revealed that more than 2300 unaccompanied Burundian children had made long and dangerous journeys to refugee camps without their parents.

Edwin Kuria, regional humanitarian manager for Save the Children in East Africa, said: “Often sent ahead by their desperate parents, who stay behind to protect family homes and property from looting, the number of vulnerable children arriving alone or separated from their families is unprecedented. Many are arriving without shoes and nothing but the clothes they are wearing.”

Also in June there was a hand grenade attack on a Bujumbura school which injured a 15-year-old boy. UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, Leila Gharagozloo-Pakkala, said: “It is a deplorable assault on a place that should always be safe for every child. At a time of continued unrest in Burundi, children have been killed, detained and continue to be at great risk.”

Waiting to be registered at Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania

When families began to flee from the violence, the exodus left many schools half-filled or worse. In August UNICEF reported: “At the end of the school year at the primary school of Kabonga I, the first-grade class, usually overcrowded with 94 children in one classroom, numbered only 32 pupils.”

More than 215,000 people have fled into neighbouring countries including Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

More than 85,000 Burundians are living in the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania – and 60% of them are children. The International Rescue Committee built 10 temporary learning centres there and lessons are taught by refugee teachers. But some classes have 200 children and there are not enough desks for everyone.

Burundian refugees at Lusenda camp in DRC Picture: MONUSCO/Abel Kavanagh

Teachers are also feeling the effects of the growing unrest. The teachers’ union Syndicat des Travailleurs de l’Enseignement du Burundi (STEB) has been working with Education International to support those who have faced government harassment since the violence began.

An EI delegation was in Bujumbura last month to hear teachers tell of colleagues being jailed or forced into exile. EI and STEB met education officials to discuss how to keep schools safe in Burundi.

Children watch as bodies are removed after a killing last month

Belgium yesterday advised its citizens to leave Burundi and the European Union said it was withdrawing all non-essential staff. UN officials are considering various tactics to avoid bloodshed, including the deployment of UN peackeeping forces.

What everyone fears is a repeat of the 100-day horror in Rwanda in 1994. Most of the victims were Tutsis, many of them hacked to death by machetes.

Thousands of children were killed and hundreds of thousands left orphaned or separated from their parents. A UNICEF study found that 80% of children interviewed had lost at least one family member and 96% had witnessed massacres.

Children play in a bus burned during protests in Bujumbura

UNICEF’s Leila Gharagozloo-Pakkala has been particularly voiciferous in recent weeks. She wrote in a blog yesterday: “Seventeen children have been killed since the onset of the crisis. Schools have been rocked by hand grenades, with children caught in protests, detained, and assaulted.”

She has also called for schools to treated as places where children can be safe from the violence in Burundi. She said recently:  “Children have the right to protection in such situations and should never be targeted. Schools should be respected as zones of peace and safe havens for children.”

Being in school is vital for children living in emergency situations – including conflicts, natural disasters and health crises. That’s why A World at School has been leading the way in the struggle for adequate funding for education in emergencies.

There are currently 34 million children out of school because of emergencies – and yet in 2014, only 1% of humanitarian aid and 2% of humanitarian appeals went towards education.

Schools and temporary learning spaces provide safe and secure environments for children to be with each other and begin to cope with the trauma of living through an emergency. And unless children return to school quickly, they are at risk of being forced into child labour, child marriage, trafficking, sexual exploitation or recruitment as child soldiers.

A new mechanism is needed to tackle the gap in support and funding where children fall through the net – trapped between a humanitarian system, focusing on food and shelter, and the development aid system that is long term and finds it difficult to cope with immediate crises.

After the UN General Assembly in September, UN Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown, UNICEF Executive Director Tony Lake and Julia Gillard, Board Chair of the Global Partnership for Education committed to shepherding such a process. Before the end of the year, there will be firm decisions on new ways of funding education in emergencies.

Let us hope that by then the situation in Burundi has not descended into further bloodshed.

Learn more about Education in Emergencies.

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