How can we protect education from attack? A focus on Western and Central Africa

This page in:

book cover
Ikoyi, Lagos/ Nigeria - December 14th, 2019 : An event organised by non governmental organisations on the missing chibok yet to be brought back home
Copyright (c) 2020 Alucardion/Shutterstock. No use without permission.

Attacks on schools have become increasingly frequent in news headlines throughout Western and Central Africa region. Since the 2014 Chibok girls’ kidnapping in Nigeria, attacks on schools have continued to rise. While some children have been released by or have escaped from the kidnappers, many remain in captivity. Leah Sharibu is one of those children. 

At the age of 14, Leah was among the hundred girls kidnapped from a government school in Yobe, Nigeria, in February 2018. Because of her unwillingness to conform to the beliefs of her kidnappers, she has since been held captive like many other children in the region, including some of the Chibok girls. 

Whether they are released or not, these attacks disrupt or completely halt education for many of these children. Hauwa, a 16-year-old victim of these attacks from Buni Yade, Nigeria, was quoted in a report by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) saying “I told my parents I would never go back to school… I will never go back because of Boko Haram threats and what I saw that night. I cannot go back to face the same thing again.” Similarly, Hussaini, a 14-year-old boy, was forced to flee his village in Burkina Faso when his school was attacked in 2018. He said, “I used to love school, to read, to count and to play during recess,” however, like Hauwa, he has not returned to school since the attack.

These stories, unfortunately, are not uncommon. Nearly two million children in Western and Central Africa cannot attend schools due to the growing insecurity in and around schools. In many cases, schools are direct targets of attacks: data from 2018 shows that more than a quarter of all the verified attacks on schools globally took place in the region.

September 9th marked the International Day to Protect Education from Attack, a day to draw attention to (1) attacks on students, teachers, and education institutions; (2) the use of schools for military purposes, as well as (3) efforts aimed at promoting and protecting the right to education and facilitating the continuation of education in armed conflict, including the Safe Schools Declaration. It is a day to bring attention to the stories of children like Leah, Hauwa, and Hussaini, and to urgently think about sustainable solutions.

How serious is this problem? 

An analysis of the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) shows that since 2010, at least 2,880 events of violence in and around educational facilities have been registered in the region, including explosions, battles, and violence against civilians.  Besides the absolute values, it is a concerning trend. While only 39 events were registered in 2010, 559 were registered in 2020, and 440 in the first half of 2021. 

One type of attack has been growing - kidnappings. In the region, more than 1,037 people, mostly students and teachers, were kidnapped in and around educational facilities during the first seven months of 2021. This is more than double the count for 2020 and includes incidents with as many as 300 students kidnapped.

What are the effects of these attacks on education? 

The first effect is most obvious and direct: school closures. UNICEF reports that 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.


The second effect is less evident but much more widespread - the impact on enrollment rates. A recent study has shown that, in the case of Nigeria, one additional conflict event in a 5-km radius from a child's village during the previous academic year reduces the child's probability of school enrolment by two percentage points. This estimate is for attacks that are not necessarily targeted to educational facilities; therefore, the impact of attacks specifically targeted at schools can be expected to be much higher.

There is also strong evidence that attacks affect children emotionally and have long-term impacts on learning outcomes. Further, conflict tends to increase inequalities, and some studies indicate that existing gaps between marginalized groups, such as women and the poor, and the rest of the population worsen during conflict. The GCPEA found that girls were less likely than boys to return to school following conflicts because families prioritized education for boys, and children feared sexual violence and general insecurity at school or on the way to or from school.

What can be done? 

The World Bank’s Education Strategy for Western and Central Africa (2022-2025), which is under development, puts a strong focus on tackling attacks to educational facilities, understanding that the effects on education caused by violence and conflict have long-lasting consequences for children, youth, and the region. Two sets of interventions are worth highlighting:

  • Interventions to prevent conflict and violence through the education system. After-school programs that engage children or empower youth by providing critical life skills can reduce violence and prevent engagement with extremist organizations. The use of cognitive-behavioral therapy has proven efficient at reducing violence and increasing retention in school. School curricula can be designed to challenge cultural norms that promote violence. In general, expanding access to secondary, tertiary, and vocational education and providing job opportunities is key to reduce the probability of youth being recruited by extremist organizations. Also, in higher education, developing programs on conflict studies can become an important tool to understand the dynamics of violence and conflict more thoroughly.
  • Interventions to continue service delivery in fragile and violent contexts. The strategy highlights the importance of ensuring safety in and around schools by developing early warning systems and comprehensive security plans beyond mere perimetral fencing. It also entails solid data collection systems that can identify schools at risk. In cases where formal education cannot continue in schools, alternative education service delivery such as pop-up schools, learning circles that operate off-site from the formal “mother schools” are proving effective. Expanding remote learning to create resilience against disruptions created by violence can provide a substitute to mitigate the damage of school closures. Some organizations have been using Interactive Voice Recording to make remote learning more dynamic and obtain real-time feedback from students and parents. Many of these interventions have been scaled up and shown effective during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition, advocacy will play a crucial role to create awareness and avoid leaving the most vulnerable students behind. Therefore, all governments must show their commitment by signing the Safe Schools Declaration and promoting the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use During Armed Conflicts

The increase in violent attacks in and around schools will not be solved overnight but recognizing the magnitude of the problem is the first step. Governments can build schools with the most modern infrastructure, equip them with the best books and learning materials, and train teachers with the best pedagogical techniques. However, little progress will be made in education if children cannot attend schools because they fear what might happen if they do.  Addressing the problem from multiple angles can be difficult, but the reward is very high, a region in which no child has to go through the experiences of Leah, Hauwa, and Hussaini - a region where all children can attend school safely and learn without fear. 


Stefano De Cupis

Strategic Communications Specialist

Jason Weaver

Senior Economist, Education Global Practice

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000