Safe Schools: Attacks and kidnappings disrupt education for children in English-speaking Cameroon

Cameroon Eductation Under Attack 2
Hundreds of schools have been forced to close due to lack of security (GPE)

Children in conflicts, Education in emergencies, Safe schools, Safe Schools Declaration

One in six children around the world live in a war zone. Most people are aware of the major conflicts – in countries like Syria, Yemen and South Sudan.

But there are also may “hidden crises”. Where the spotlight isn’t shone very often but where the effect on children and their education is the same.

One of those unseen conflicts is taking place in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon.

“There is chaos. Most young people are not well educated and now some of them have guns,” said Joannes Paulus Yimbesalu, a Global Youth Ambassador for Theirworld who is originally from the North-West region. 

“They see no opportunity in their own country and some of them are now attacking schools.”

The enormous scale of attacks on schools and threats to education suffered by millions of children around the world has been revealed in a report by Theirworld.

Safe Schools; The Hidden Crisis says over 500 million school-age children and adolescents live in countries where schools face threats ranging from conflicts to natural disasters and gangs to gender-based violence. It projects that without urgent action that will rise by 2030 to over 620 million young people – almost one in three.

In Cameroon, almost 80 children were abducted from a school in Bamenda last month, along with the principal and a teacher. All were later freed.

Joannes is from Bamenda, although he now lives in Canada. He visited his home country a few months ago and said he was shocked by what he saw.

“I cannot go back to my village because the roads are blocked. Lots of schools have been burned,” he said. 

“As a young person, I see what was a great education system failing over the next five years. Which parents would send their kids to school now? More and more children will drop out of school.”

The children kidnapped from Presbyterian Secondary School said their captors warned them not to go back to school.

The mass kidnapping was the latest attack on a school in the two English-speaking regions in the west of the country, where armed groups have taken children and closed down schools in their struggle for a separate state.

Cameroon is among 82 countries that have signed the Safe Schools Declaration – a commitment to keep students, teachers and their schools free from the fear of violence and occupation during armed conflict.

Cameroon Eductation Under Attack 1

There have been several attacks on schools, students and teachers in Cameroon (GPE)

Over 400 civilians have been killed in attacks between separatist groups and government forces. More than 430,000 people are displaced within Cameroon and over 30,000 have fled into neighbouring Nigeria – 80% of them children and women.

The crisis is increasingly worrying the United Nations and the International community.

“We are deeply concerned about the worsening violence in the Southwest and Northwest regions of Cameroon,” said Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“We have received reports of armed secessionist groups attacking schools and destroying school buildings, which, coupled with the worrying abductions, has resulted in many children being unable to access their right to education.”

Global Youth Ambassador Joannes explained that roughly 20% of Cameroon – which has a population of over 24 million – is English-speaking historically, after part of British Cameroons joined French Cameroun in the early 1960s.

“We have no representation in national government,” he said. “In 1995, there was a call for the creation of an independent state called Southern Cameroons which later led to a government crackdown. In 2016 English teachers and lawyers went on strike because of the French influence in the English-speaking regions which they viewed as both a cultural and linguistic discrimination towards them.

“We should not be having French-speaking teachers and lawyers teaching and overseeing legal cases in a language in which they cannot express themselves. But nobody listened.”

Cameroon Eductation Under Attack 3

Almost 80 children were taken from Presbyterian Secondary School in the city of Bamenda

Joannes said protests began and – despite several calls for dialogue on both sides – citizens continued to witness a clampdown by government forces. Armed separatists then launched a campaign for an independent state.

“This came as a surprise to the international community,” said Joannes. “The brutal crackdown has forced the local population to carry arms with so many armed groups springing up, sometimes with no mechanism of leadership. 

“It remains unclear if the main separatist group is the one terrorising citizens. However, it is true that opportunists are trying to make money – or cause trouble.

“The circumstances behind some of the recent kidnappings remain unclear but many suspect they are in exchange for a ransom. This is not about hatred of education.

“They are using education to force change, to challenge the government. They have hijacked the education system to be heard and stay relevant. I don’t see these tensions subsiding any time soon.”

Joannes said some of the government-run schools currently have armed guards. So the separatists are now targeting privately-owned schools – especially faith-based schools – because they are easier to attack and they believe many of the students have parents who work for the government.

“When you have been pushed to the edge, you no longer care about the consequences.” he said. “Some of these people are ready to die.”

“I worry so much because with each day that passes children become easy targets for militia recruitment. I worry about this generation of kids who may never go to school.”

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