Burkina Faso: Armed Islamists Attack Education

New York — Increasing armed Islamist group attacks on teachers, students, and schools in Burkina Faso since 2017 have had a devastating impact on children's access to education, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 102-page report, 'Their War Against Education': Armed Group Attacks on Teachers, Students, and Schools in Burkina Faso, documents scores of education-related attacks by armed Islamist groups in 6 of the country's 13 regions between 2017 and 2020. The groups have killed, beaten, abducted, and threatened education professionals; intimidated students; terrorized parents into keeping children out of school; and damaged, destroyed, and looted schools.

"Armed Islamist groups targeting teachers, students, and schools in Burkina Faso are not only committing war crimes, but are undoing years of progress in improving children's access to education," said Lauren Seibert, children's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "The Burkinabè government should investigate these attacks, ensure children regain access to schooling, and provide needed support to education workers who experienced attacks."

Human Rights Watch interviewed over 170 people between December 2019 and April 2020, including 74 education professionals, 35 current and former students, and other witnesses to attacks, parents of students, victims' family members, community leaders, aid workers, experts, and government officials.

Armed Islamist groups allied with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State began attacking teachers and schools in Burkina Faso in 2017, citing their opposition to "French," Western-style education and government institutions. The attacks have increased every year since.

Human Rights Watch documented 126 attacks and armed threats against education professionals, students, and schools , with more than half the attacks in 2019. At least 12 education professionals were killed and 17 assaulted or abducted in the documented attacks, with many others forcibly detained and threatened.

Teachers and school administrators described being chained, tied, blindfolded, and beaten, with their belongings stolen or burned. Those killed include five teachers shot at a primary school; a teacher and a principal shot at home; four teachers and administrators abducted and killed, including two beheaded; and a retired volunteer teacher gunned down as he tutored children.

In a May 2020 letter to Human Rights Watch, the education ministry reported that at least 222 education workers had been "victims of terrorist attacks" as of late April.

While armed Islamists have not appeared to target children for violence during school attacks, they often fired shots in the air to terrify students and teachers. "I was really scared. We thought they were coming to kill us," a student recalled. A 14-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet during a school attack in 2018. Seven students returning from school break were among the 14 people killed when an explosive device detonated under their bus in January 2020.

A rmed men damaged or pillaged schools in at least 84 of the documented cases, including by burning school infrastructure and academic materials, setting off explosives, shooting at schools, and plundering supplies from canteen storerooms.

Before the Burkinabè government closed all schools nationwide in mid-March in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, 2,500 schools had already closed due to attacks or insecurity, depriving nearly 350,000 students of access to education.

"All the schools here are closed [because of attacks and insecurity]," said an education professional in Namssiguia village, Centre-Nord region, in February. " We pray the situation will improve so the children can go back to school, because they are suffering."

Violence by armed Islamist groups in Burkina Faso – and, in response, by self-defense militias and government security forces – has steadily increased since the emergence of the Burkinabè armed Islamist group Ansaroul Islam in 2016. A surge in attacks in 2019 continued into 2020, displacing over 830,000 people from their homes.

Between mid-2017 and mid-2019, the central Sahel countries of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger witnessed a six-fold increase in school closures due to attacks and insecurity. By early 2020, Burkina Faso had more such school closures than Mali ( 1,261 ) and Niger (354) combined.

The use of schools for military purposes, such as converting them into military bases, also puts education infrastructure at risk. Human Rights Watch documented the use of ten schools by Burkinabè security forces and six by armed Islamist groups, as well as armed Islamist attacks on four schools during or directly after their occupation by the Burkinabè military.

The attacks have had far-reaching consequences for students and teachers, including trauma and mental health issues, school withdrawals, dangers for children traveling to access new schools, and, among out-of-school children, increased child labor and risks of child marriage for girls.

In 2017, Burkina Faso endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration , a political agreement committing countries to prevent and respond to attacks on students, teachers, and schools. The government has since taken several positive steps, such as reopening closed schools, redeploying teachers, and creating a national strategy and technical secretariat on education in emergencies. Recently, the government expanded distance-learning programs – previously implemented in some conflict-affected regions – to national radio and television, as part of its Covid-19 education response.

However, the government should urgently address gaps in its response to education-related attacks. It should ensure timely psychosocial and financial support to victims, increase support to overcrowded "host schools" accepting displaced students, expand "education-in-emergencies" programs to reach more children affected by conflict, improve school security in conflict zones, and restrict military use of schools. Those responsible for attacks should be investigated for war crimes and appropriately prosecuted.

Donor governments should consider supporting education-in-emergencies programs and victim rehabilitation, including psychosocial care for teachers and students who experienced attacks.

"In their brutal assault against education, armed Islamist groups in Burkina Faso have cost teachers their lives, livelihoods, and physical and mental health, and they are costing hundreds of thousands of children their futures," Seibert said. "These attacks need to stop."

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