Education under threat in West and Central Africa

UNICEF Child Alert | August 2019


Conflict is taking a devastating toll on education. This must not become a forgotten crisis

Thirty years after governments around the world adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the right to an education is being violated in communities hit by conflict in West and Central Africa.

Right now, nearly two million children are being robbed of an education in the region due to violence and insecurity in and around their schools. In Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Niger and Nigeria, a surge in threats and attacks against students, teachers and schools – on education itself – is casting a foreboding shadow upon children, their families, their communities and society at large.

Now more than ever, governments must reaffirm their commitment to protecting education from attack and providing the resources needed to help their youngest citizens to keep learning. Now is the time for renewed efforts to make sure the potential of a generation of young people is not wasted.

West and Central Africa crisis at a glance


This map is stylized and not to scale. It does not reflect a position by UNICEF on the legal status of any country or area or the delimitation of any frontiers. The final boundary between the Sudan and South Sudan has not yet been determined.

What’s happening?

Many areas in West and Central Africa are witnessing increased hostility towards education by warring factions. More than one quarter of the 742 verified attacks on schools globally in 2018 took place in five countries across West and Central Africa.

How many children are affected?

The number of schools forced to close due to rising insecurity in conflict-affected areas of West and Central Africa tripled between the end of 2017 and June 2019. As of June 2019, 9,272 schools closed across eight countries in the region, affecting more than 1.91 million children and nearly 44,000 teachers.

Why is education under threat?

Particularly in the countries of the Central Sahel (Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger) and the Lake Chad Basin (Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria), ideological opposition to what is seen as Western-style education – especially for girls – is central to many of these disputes. As a result, school children, teachers, administrators and the education infrastructure are being deliberately targeted. At the same time, worsening insecurity and conflict, including the use of schools by armed forces and groups, further disrupts a child’s access to and quality of education.

Learning in peril

When education is under attack, safe schooling in the traditional sense becomes impossible to provide. The threat of attacks creates a sense of fear in local communities, forcing schools to close, teachers to flee and school children to remain at home, unable to learn in classrooms with their peers.

A child attends class at a UNICEF-supported government primary school, in Douala, Cameroon.

Out-of-school children also face a present filled with dangers. Compared to their peers who are in school, they are at a much higher risk of recruitment by armed groups. Girls face an elevated risk of gender-based violence and are forced into child marriage more often, with ensuing early pregnancies and childbirth that threaten their lives and health.

A child sits at her desk at a UNICEF-supported government primary school, in Douala, Cameroon.

Without education, children face a future stripped of hope. The life of a child kept out of school is a tragedy of unfulfilled potential and lost opportunity. In an increasingly complex region confronted by conflict and instability, education can never be optional. Children must be provided with the opportunity to acquire the skills, knowledge, values and attitudes they need to become responsible, active and productive adults.

The life of a child kept out of school is a tragedy of unfulfilled potential and lost opportunity

A girl reads to her Grade 3 class at Dala Shuwari Integrated Quranic School in Maiduguri, Borno state, northeast Nigeria.

Voices from the region

South Sudan. A girl completes school work in a classroom in Yambio, South Sudan.
Mary, who was once abducted by an armed group, completes school work in a classroom in Yambio, South Sudan.
Nigeria. A girl pushes her hand against a screen.
Fatima was abducted by an armed group following an attack on her hometown in Nigeria.

How is UNICEF helping?

  • While a classroom is preferable, it is not the only place to provide learning activities. For example, UNICEF and the Children’s Radio Foundation have been collaborating since 2016 on designing and piloting the first-of-its-kind Radio Education in Emergencies programme.
  • UNICEF has also been creating temporary learning centres, which provide a small, safe area for teaching children basic mathematics and reading. Children are encouraged to write about family and community history in their notebooks. Most of all, they are encouraged to play – a vital activity, especially for children living in insecure areas.
  • UNICEF supports efforts by education authorities across the region to upgrade teachers’ skills – for example, by equipping pre- and in-service teachers to work with community members on emergency preparedness and response plans, and to provide students with psychosocial support. Such support helps children heal, recover and build resilience.
  • In northeast Nigeria, UNICEF works to help conflict-affected children get back into learning with the assistance they need to realize their right to an education. Support includes temporary learning centres; teaching and learning materials; teacher training in positive classroom management and emergency preparedness; school rehabilitation; and community engagement in school-based decision making.
A UNICEF Child Protection Specialist speaks with a victim of gender-based violence in Banki, northeast Nigeria.

Call to action

UNICEF and partners call on governments, armed forces, other parties to conflict and the international community to take concerted action to stop attacks and threats against schools, students, teachers and other school personnel in West and Central Africa – and to support quality learning for every child in the region. To reach these goals:

  • States must protect education and endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, which calls for stopping attacks on schools, education facilities and personnel. 
  • Teaching and learning must be designed to build peace and support girls’ education – including tackling gender-based stereotypes, preventing child marriage, combatting gender-based violence and discriminatory practices, and protecting pregnant girls’ right to education.
  • Authorities must build the capacity of education personnel through training in core knowledge and competencies, proven pedagogical methods and provision of psychosocial support.
  • All refugee, migrant and displaced children must be able to continue learning through access to quality education.
  • Parents and communities must be essential partners in ensuring access to quality education during and after emergencies. Donor governments must commit to multi-year, flexible funding to support education in emergencies and create linkages to longer-term education programming.

Read the Child Alert for the full call to action


Education in emergencies programmes in West and Central Africa remain severely underfunded and greater support is urgently needed. Despite the risks they face, communities on the front lines of this struggle will not rest until children are guaranteed the education that is every child’s right.

Take action

Help UNICEF meet the needs of children whose education is under threat in West and Central Africa.