This essay was originally written for the Deseret News.
UNICEF reported this week that more than 1 million children have been forced out of school by the violence of the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram in northern Nigeria and the surrounding area.
“The conflict has been a huge blow for education in the region, and violence has kept many children out of the classroom for more than a year, putting them at risk for dropping out of school altogether,” said Manuel Fontaine, the West and Central Africa regional director of UNICEF.
Across Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, more than 2,000 schools remain closed due to the conflict. Hundreds of schools have been attacked, looted or set on fire. Boko Haram fighters have killed about 600 teachers in Nigeria. “Schools have been targets of attack, so children are scared to go back to the classroom,” said Fontaine, “yet the longer they stay out of school, the greater the risks of being abused, abducted and recruited by armed groups.”
According to Voice of America, three child suicide bombers between the ages of 10 and 15 blew themselves up killing six others in northern Nigeria on Sunday night, underscoring fears of child recruitment into the deadly terrorist organization.
In March, Boko Haram renamed itself the “Islamic State’s West Africa Province,” or Iswap, according to the Independent. The name change has yet to stick in popular media, where it is still known as Boko Haram, a nickname for the group roughly meaning “Western education is a sin” in Hausa.
In April 2014, Boko Haram abducted 276 girls from their school dormitories in Chibok, northeast Nigeria. Fifty-seven managed to escape but 219 are still missing. Since then Boko Haram has been ranked as the world’s most deadly terrorist organization, killing more than 6,600 people this year.
Poverty and unemployment are the greatest development constraints in Nigeria, DevEx reported last week. In 2014 and 2015 the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) spent about $35 million on education in Nigeria. Last week USAID granted Creative Associates International $117 million to strengthen and enhance “the quality of early primary education and increase access to basic education for vulnerable populations” over the next five years.
Nigeria is not the only country experiencing a terrorist threat to education. According to a 2014 UNICEF report, Afghanistan, Colombia, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Syria all experienced more than 1,000 attacks on students, teachers or schools between 2009 and 2012. Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Libya, Mexico and Yemen all experienced between 500 and 999 such attacks during the same time period.
Last month, Frontline reported that the Islamic State group takes over schools and instructs students on how to use military weapons “to defend the faith.” Frontline’s footage shows an Islamic State teacher explaining the meaning of “jihad” and quizzing students on how to use a hand grenade.
Before the Islamic State group entered Afghanistan and Pakistan, the countries’ education systems were terrorized by the Taliban. Most famously the Taliban shot, but failed to kill, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan for speaking out against the ban against girls attending school. She would later win the Nobel Peace Prize for the courageous stance.
Creative Associates International's website states that education is a vital part of rebuilding conflict areas. “Safe schools create an environment for learning and healing.” The website also said allowing schools to reopen gives communities a sense of returning to stability.