Addis Ababa — Thousands of children in the pastoral regions of Ethiopia are dropping out of school despite government and donor efforts to bring schools closer to them. Recurrent natural disasters such as drought and flooding, as well as inter-ethnic clashes, are major factors in school dropouts.
In February, at least 17,000 primary school children in Ethiopia were reported to have dropped out since the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, mainly due to drought-related migration.
In the northeastern Afar Region, some 15 schools have closed down due to a lack of water during the current dry season, affecting some 1,899 children, 29 percent of whom are girls, according to an 11 March update by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Ongoing conflict between the Oromo and Somali communities is also affecting education. "In conflict-affected areas of Oromia's East Hararghe zone, some 10,600 children (40 percent girls) from 35 primary schools in Kumbi, Gursum, Meyumuluke and Chenasken [districts have remained] without schooling for over three months," the update said.
In the southeastern Somali Region, seasonal flooding, ethnic conflict between residents in border areas, and even internal conflicts within the Somali ethnic group often adversely affect schooling, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
In 2012, for example, a flood emergency in the region severely affected schools in several districts. "During the flooding emergency that occurred in June 2012, around 3,196 girls dropped out of school. Most of the schools located in the seven woredas [districts] were flooded, with eventual destruction of all educational materials and school infrastructure," said UNICEF.
During the emergency, UNICEF supported the creation of temporary learning spaces for the affected children.
Children in pastoral regions often seasonally migrate with their families due to adverse weather or insecurity.
The Ethiopian government, through its Alternative Basic Education Center (ABEC) programme, has been taking schools closer to such children.
"It is to include the under-developed pastoralist regions that we needed to devise an inclusive and comprehensive strategy specifically for the areas. The regions and way of life there needed a different approach. We had to take the schools to the children, not the other way around," Mohammed Abubeker, head of the special support and inclusive education department at Ethiopia's Ministry of Education, told IRIN.
"And now, after years of efforts, we have in the regions... formal and non-formal schools. A student would find at least one informal school in every kebele [an administrative unit under the district]."
The ABEC programme has helped at least a quarter of a million rural Ethiopians living beyond the reach of the formal education system to access basic schooling, according to a statement by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
But the alternative education ends at the fourth grade, and in some areas, children must walk two hours to the formal school to continue learning, notes USAID. "Not surprisingly, some still drop out, mainly for poverty-related reasons, including the families' need for their children's labour or their inability to pay for room and board near the schools."
Pastoralists' seasonal migration also means that, "learning spaces are closed, which results in [the] closure of more Alternative Basic Education Centres," notes UNICEF.
In response to the pastoralists' movements, education officials are seeking ways to ensure learning continues.
"In the pastoralist regions, people there often move either by choice or [are] forced due to conflicts or drought," said Mohammed of the education ministry. "In such situations, we use mobile schools, which are really doing well. The teachers and education materials are made to move with the pastoralist[s], so the kids will continue to learn."
"Also, we have recently started networking the schools so when kids leave one area, we alert schools in the areas they [are migrating to] so that they can take them in," he added.
Jointly with the UN World Food Programme (WFP), the education ministry is also running a school feeding system programme that is helping to attract pupils to schools.
UNICEF is also trucking water to drought-affected areas. "If kebeles are benefitting from water trucking, schools will not be closed since the communities are getting water," notes UNICEF.
Despite the challenges, some success has been seen in educating children in pastoral regions, Mohammed told IRIN, adding that the Afar and Somali regions had gross enrolment rates of 75 and 83 percent, respectively.
"We have been doing well...but there are still many problems we need to solve. Our wish is that not a single child drops out permanently. Unfortunately, we are not there yet."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]