The armed conflict in northern Mali has disrupted access to education for hundreds of thousands of children in the region, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Unicef said Friday that some 700,000 students have been affected by ongoing violence in the complex struggle among Malian coalition forces, Islamist militants, and ethnic Tuareg rebels in the north.
Dozens of schools in the region have been shut down, destroyed, or looted, while many teachers have fled and overcrowded schools in the south struggle to accommodate displaced students, the agency said, adding that at least 200,000 children remain completely without access to schools.
“When a teacher is afraid to teach and when a student is afraid to go to school, the whole education is at risk,” Francoise Ackermans, Unicef's representative in Mali, said in a statement.
Mali’s Education Minister Moussa Bocar Diarra said the crisis was violating children’s rights to an education, and the minister requested international support to help restore the nation’s schools.
“To give new hope to those affected by the crisis, hundreds of schools need to be built or rehabilitated,” Diarra said.
“Thousands of teachers will need to be trained,” Diarra added. “They are in need of materials and textbooks, including those relating to the culture of peace and tolerance. Strong national and international support will allow us to address these challenges.”
According to Unicef, just one in three schools in the north are currently operating, while only five percent of schools have reopened in Timbuktu, which Islamist militants occupied for months, imposing strict religious laws and destroying historical sites and relics that are a fundamental part of the fabled city’s cultural heritage.
For more than a year, the Malian government has struggled, amid internal political turmoil, to manage a rebellion in the north led by members of the Tuareg ethnic group, a nomadic people who have longstanding disputes over sovereignty in the region.
Islamist militant groups have since infiltrated Mali amid the disorder from other areas in North Africa and were initially allied with the Tuareg rebels, although the alliance has since deteriorated over ideological differences.
A coalition of West African nations and France have sent troops to Mali to assist the government in managing the conflict, citing concerns over regional instability and the potential for northern Mali to become a training ground for terrorist groups.