Additional information
Praying with refugees: children suffering an endless nightmare
04 January 2015

Cristina Fernandez Duran, West Africa Regional Programs officer, and Micheal Gallagher, Geneva representative, with Children in our transitional school in Bimbo IDP site. (Jesuit Refugee Service)
If nothing is done to re-establish an education system, there is a risk that another lost generation will provoke the crises of tomorrow.
Bangui, 4 January 2015 – The long-forgotten and -neglected crisis consuming the Central African Republic (CAR) for the last 30 years has spiralled out of control, and the most vulnerable pay the heaviest price. Since 2013, this already fragile country, unable to survive the fall of François Bozize regime, has succumbed to a dictatorship under multiple armed groups which have established a climate of terror and atrocity. 

Two groups, known as Séléka and anti-balaka, driven by different politico-economic interests, have learned how to play upon religious sensibilities, inciting hatred between Christians and Muslims and risking total breakdown in the country. Some 430,000 have been internally displaced, of whom almost 61,250 are from the city of Bangui alone. A further 419,000 have sought asylum in neighbouring countries, and more than 2.5 million persons, primarily civilians, have been rendered vulnerable by the crisis. 

The lives of children in CAR is ongoing tragedy, with seemingly no end in sight. Some children have witnessed abuses, killings of their parents and neighbours, scenes of unparalleled violence, all which provoke trauma and unusual behaviour. Furthermore, life in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps is completely unrecognisable as ordinary family life. Some children are separated from their families; others live a life marked by acute austerity. Such a breakdown in social life is leading to a grave psychological legacy. In this landscape of daily, continuous violence, the suffering of children seems like an endless nightmare.

Successive crises in CAR have pushed children to join armed groups which now pose a threat today. If nothing is done to re-establish an education system, there is a risk that another lost generation will provoke the crises of tomorrow.

Education as a target of conflict. Over time, armed conflicts have a certain impact on educational activities. Approximately 65 percent of schools have been closed for the last two years, and a further 400,000 children prevented from receiving quality education.

Most schools in CAR have been looted, occupied, burned or damaged by gun or artillery fire, and almost 280,000 primary school children have abandoned school in the last year. More than a third of schools in are used as shelters. Many schools are subjected to indiscriminate attack, leaving both pupils and teachers as collateral damage.

Constant interruptions. When the new school year began in November, the education minister confirmed the crisis would once again prevent thousands of children from attending school. In Boy Rabe, a pro-anti-balaka district of the capital, Bangui, there are frequent clashes with the ex-Séléka group. For instance, the schools in this district were closed since December 2013, and the families have been forced to return to IDPs camps, with more than 3,640 children in the Boy Rabe Monastery camp. Since then, these schools, including emergency education activities, have only opened sporadically. When activities opened in May 2014, they were once again interrupted by renewed violence in October. 

The international community has established Child Friendly and Temporary Learning Spaces and Child Protection (ETAPE) programmes, which have provided 34,555 children with access to emergency education. Only a few schools, particularly secondary schools, have been able to re-open for the 2014 school year.

During a crisis, education is rarely prioritised in child protection and the reconstruction of the country. Yet, when education is neglected during emergencies, children are more unlikely to resume their studies. During the second phase of the UNICEF-funded ETAPE programme, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) secondary school programme, benefiting 391 students, was closed. The students, 23 of whom received scholarships from JRS, were referred to colleges and public secondary schools, yet many children were forced to abandon their studies. Clearly, the lack of resources in the field of emergency education presents great challenge.

Obstacles to universal education. The goodwill of the authorities trying to re-launch the education system is not enough. Most schools are closed due to deep-seated insecurity linked to decades of instability and the absence of a functioning state. Many state schools in Bangui have not re-opened because their teachers are demanding payment of outstanding salaries. Hopefully, negotiations between the education minister and the teachers will have a positive outcome.

There is a distinct divide between the private and public sector. Private schools, particularly Catholic schools, have more resources at their disposal and thus are in a better position to guarantee salaries to teachers and higher quality services, including didactic materials, to students. Yet, private schools have neither the space nor resources to meet the needs of all children.

Education as rehabilitation. IDP camps, like a vast ocean of distress, radically dismantle normal family life making a return to normalcy seemingly impossible. Although schools can be places where armed groups seek to recruit children, they are also spaces which offer a sense of wellbeing and normalcy in emergencies to those who would otherwise be at greater risk.

Nearly 235 children in CAR have been freed from armed groups. For some, their games become war. As they play, they use terms learned from armed groups. In observing the emergence of warlike culture among children under five years of age, JRS emergency education programmes in the Boy Rabe and Bimbo camps seek to give children back their childhood and innocence. Schooling, in addition to guaranteeing children an education, also guarantees continuous protection and socialisation.

Your Reflections

While social links have been torn apart by conflict and social stability turned upside down, education in times of crisis provides the seeds for reconstruction and the prop on which national reconciliation will be built. It must be the duty of governments and strategic players to facilitate a favourable return to education in countries destroyed by war.

Isidore Ngueuleu, JRS, West Africa Advocacy and Communications Officer

Suggested Reading for Prayer

Proverbs 9: 9-10

Instruct a wise man, and he becomes still wiser; teach a just man, and he advances in learning.

The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.