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20,000 children kept in school during the conflict in Gao

© UNICEF Mali / 2013 / Dicko

By Ismail Maiga and Cindy Cao

GAO, 9 August 2013 - The school survived in the midst of the rubble created by the war. On 31 March 2012, Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, fell into the hands of armed groups. Since then, many men, women and children, young and old, have left and fled the occupation; however, Madame Touré Ouleymatou Maïga decided to stay and keep her commitment to ensuring that the children in Gao were able to continue their education.

Her nickname is “Woura”, which means “gold” in the Songhaï language. Madame Touré is clearly a woman of pure gold.

“I’d rather die than leave my community,” she says.

She is not only a mainstream secondary school teacher but also the Director of the Centre d’animation Pédagogique (CAP), a support and resource center for teachers. She is known for having worked tirelessly with the Crisis Committee and the teachers who stayed behind in the city and re-opening schools. As a result, more than 20,000 children in Gao were able to continue their schooling during the period of the occupation.

“If we don’t keep the children in school they will become part of the war effort, as cannon fodder,” she explains. 

The day after the attack on Gao, a unit was set up to act as an interface between the population and the occupying forces. Madame Touré was the only woman in the consultation group, which, on the civilian side, brought together traditional and customary leaders, religious leaders and other representatives. Concessions were made during the negotiations: wearing the veil was made compulsory, girls were banned from doing sport and girls and boys had to be separated in class. Her main concern was to ensure that all children remained at school.

Madame Touré is emotional as she recalls the reopening of the CAP: “Lessons had started with the limited resources we had at hand. Chalk, exercise books and pens were collected thanks to the donations from members of the community. Families supplied the school with tea, fresh water and other drinks. Parents wanted to stop their children being at the mercy of the armed groups, who could have enlisted the boys or forced the girls into marriage.”

It was a victory: today the CAP in Gao has 31,681 pupils ready to take the special school exams.

New challenges

Today, those schools in Gao that are functional are open, but the acute problem of the lack of teachers is having an impact. Supplies of equipment are also starting to run short. Teachers recalled that during the occupation, tables and benches were used as firewood by the armed groups. As a result, children now find themselves sitting on the floor in over-sized class rooms, some with up to 120 pupils.

The government, in partnership with UNICEF and others, is supporting Madame Touré’s initiative as part of the “Back to School” campaign: an emergency response to the situation of the thousands of children who have been directly affected by the conflict. Over 46,000 student packs were sent to Gao in May 2013, and others are due to be provided for all children who are back to school already.

A needs assessment is also underway, looking in particular at schools that require rehabiliataion work and school furniture. Strengthening the education system is seen as a way of building peace and supporting the country’s future. 



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