LONDON - More than 1 million children in Central African Republic are not attending school because of the violent coup in March and chronic poverty, the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) has said.
At least half the country’s schools are still closed, one month after the Seleka rebel coalition marched to the capital Bangui and seized power, the agency said.
The schools are not reopening because teachers who fled conflict-hit areas have yet to return home, and many schools have been looted of even the most basic supplies. Continued insecurity is stopping children and teachers from going back to class, and preventing emergency distributions to schools for fear of further pillaging, UNICEF said.
"The new government must prioritise protection of, and investment in, the country’s education system, to respect and fulfil children’s basic right to education and to provide this generation of children with hope for a healthy future," Souleymane Diabate, UNICEF representative in Central African Republic (CAR), said in a statement.
Aid agencies say that the entire population - more than 4.6 million people, around half of them children - is affected, directed or indirectly, by the political violence. In the northeast, they estimate that 1.2 million people have had no basic essential services for four months.
The Seleka group seized power after the collapse of a January peace deal signed after a previous rebel advance to the gates of the capital in December. The security situation in Bangui has been volatile since the March 24 coup, as rebel fighters have repeatedly clashed with youths loyal to the ex-president. Looting continues, and aid work is hampered by the risk of violence.
The European Union has said it will not restore its more than $200 million aid programme until the country re-establishes the rule of law.
BABIES KILLED IN CHURCH
Last week, UNICEF said more and more children were being killed and injured, noting rocket and grenade attacks on a football field and a church that killed three babies and led to leg amputations for three children and emergency surgery for others.
“We are seeing a country quickly sliding down into a spiral of chaos with more children’s lives endangered,” Diabate warned, calling on the authorities to investigate incidents involving innocent civilians.
Many children have been hit by stray bullets, others have been recruited into armed groups, UNICEF said. There has also been a documented increase in cases of sexual violence, it said.
CAR's education system was weak even before the latest bout of violence, UNICEF said. The literacy rate is only 27 percent for young women and 51 percent for young men. Nearly two thirds of teachers are unqualified parents who have volunteered to do the job.
There are 746,000 children of primary school age in CAR, 67 percent of whom were attending school before the crisis. At least 250,000 primary pupils and 30,000 secondary-school students now risk losing the entire school year if schools do not reopen in the coming weeks, UNICEF warned. There is still a small chance state exams can take place in June but catch-up classes will be required, it added.
UNICEF said it hoped to provide safe spaces for children to learn and play as areas became accessible and was identifying places that can be prioritised for resuming education activities.
"During conflict, schools can not only protect children, but they also provide children with a sense of normalcy which helps them recover from the trauma of violence and loss," the agency said.