As students in many parts of the world, including Ethiopia, headed back to school this month, some children and young people will stay at home – too afraid to step foot in a classroom. The conflict between the government of Ethiopia and Tigrayan forces, which began in 2020, continues to rage. It has cost the lives of thousands and displaced millions prompting Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, to call it the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. It has devastated the education of children in the country and the life prospects of its children and young people.
This month, along with the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, we released figures for out-of-school rates and populations globally based on a new methodology that combines administrative and survey data. These can be scrutinized in a new platform, VIEW. In the past, there have been gaps in data for Ethiopia, but the new method provides fresh insights for the country. The figures show that an estimated 10 million children between the ages of 6 and 18 are missing out on education in the country.
This puts Ethiopia among the top five countries with the most children out of school despite the rapid progress since the 1990s from a very low starting point. But these numbers only apply to 2020. With the potential impact of COVID-19 and with the war continuing to escalate, the numbers next year are likely to stop falling and rise further instead.
The Tigray Education Bureau recently assessed the damage inflicted in the education system in the region. Their report covers almost all schools in six zones except for areas not under the control of the rebel forces in the Western and Northern zones. It provides detailed analysis of the impact of the conflict. Schools, furniture, and essential equipment, such as computers, have been damaged or destroyed. Students who are able to go to school are learning in half-burnt classrooms destroyed by the fighting.
The physical damage is only a small part of the impact. The report also reveals that thousands of teachers and students have sadly been killed since the conflict started. It is not surprising then that enrolment in education has declined since the war started. Primary school enrolment rates fell from 90% in 2020 to just 21% in 2021.
We have an obligation to draw attention to the devasting impact the war is having on Tigrayan children and we need urgent solutions. Makeshift schools must be set up in safe areas and teachers need materials to carry out lessons. They also need to be trained to help children cope with the stark realities of war.
Only last year, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution on the protection of education in conflict zones. When it was signed it was hailed as a major step forward towards the protection of the most vulnerable children caught in conflict.
Ethiopia is one of the countries that signed up to the promise of ensuring free quality primary and secondary education for all children by 2030. For the last two years, UNESCO has led a process whereby governments have set their own national benchmarks. Ethiopia has participated in this important initiative committing to reduce the share of primary and lower secondary school-age children out of school to 1%. This is an ambitious goal and one that cannot be achieved without addressing the urgent education situation in Tigray.