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Horn of Africa drought puts 3.6m children at risk of dropping out of school | Global education

More than 3.5 million children are at risk of dropping out of school due to the drought in the Horn of Africa, the United Nations said amid warnings that the crisis could lead to “a lost generation” missing out on education.

According to new figures shared with the Guardian, UNICEF now estimates that 3.6 million children in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia are at risk of dropping out of school due to the cumulative pressure on households from the ongoing drought.

In a sign of how dire the situation is getting in many areas, that number has more than tripled in the past six months – from 1.1 million.

Four consecutive failed rainy seasons have pushed millions of families to the brink, increasing the number of child deaths from malnutrition and forcing people to flee their homes in search of more resources.

But the drought also threatens to create another, calmer ripple effect in the three worst-hit countries, said Abhiyan Jung Rana, UNICEF education adviser for eastern and southern Africa.

“In the Horn of Africa, about 15 million children do not go to school, even in these countries. But fears are that the drought will leave another 3.6 million children dropping out as they move with their parents to areas outside their school.”

Teachers and activists in Somaliland, an autonomous region of Somalia, say they are already seeing this effect in their classrooms – and it is mostly girls who are leaving.

“When the chips run out, it’s always the girls who bear the brunt of the situation,” said Sadia Allin, country director for Plan International, which works with communities in Somaliland to help them weather the drought.

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“It is very worrying. Education provides immediate physical, psychological and cognitive protection. For girls it is a disappointment not to go to school. It affects their dreams,” she says.

“When Girls Feel Like They’re Losing That” [education]it also seems that they are losing their rights.”

Kiin Farah Hasan, the head teacher of a village school in Somaliland’s Toghdeer region, prays that this year will be better for the girls at her school. By the end of last academic year, after two rainy seasons failed, only 31 of the original 56 girls were left.

“Some girls got married, some moved to other places because their parents emigrated from here because of the drought,” she said. “And some of them, their families are poor and have nothing, even getting their livelihood is hard for them.”

Kiin said she had become accustomed to teaching hungry children. “When we wonder if they are hungry, sometimes we give them a 30 minute break and order food from the market to eat, and for some I even cook food in my house and give [it to] them,” she said.

Kiin Farah Hasan, a teacher in Toghdeer, Somaliland, says she is used to teaching hungry students and often prepares food for them herself. Photo: Armstrong Kiprotich/Plan International

A good school food program, along with a school bus to cover the 3-6 miles (5-10 km) journey to school, would allow many of those at risk to stay in education, she said. But the absence of these, coupled with the added pressure on family incomes, has increased the chances of children attending school.

Kiin said she believed “three or four” of the girls who dropped out had been married since they left school. “Maybe some of them got married voluntarily, but that problem really hit me.”

Child marriages often increase in times of drought or disaster, as parents want to raise extra money through dowries.

UNICEF said it expected no discernible difference between the sexes in terms of the number of children at risk of dropping out, as the relocation of entire families, including boys and girls, was a major factor in their vulnerability.

But Jung Rana said he expected girls to be less likely to return to school, as in the wake of Covid lockdowns, which in some places have coincided with higher rates of early marriage, teenage pregnancies and gender-based violence.

“I would see something similar happening because, in a sense, schools are closed to them and they’re there with their parents or with their families, and things like this would probably happen more,” he said.

He added: “Girls are mainly looked at in households to be able to provide the care aspects…more than boys would be, in terms of looking after their smaller siblings and taking care of chores around the house or wherever they are . I think with those circumstances they are more inclined not to go back.”

Women in a barren landscape fill plastic containers with water at a well
Women collect water in Xidhinta, Somaliland. According to the UN, an estimated 13 million people in the Horn of Africa are suffering severe hunger due to drought. Photo: Daniel Jukes/AP

Speaking from Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, Allin said it is vital that donor countries such as the UK recognize that droughts and other crises can seriously affect girls’ education, and provide funding accordingly. Liz Truss, Britain’s new Prime Minister, has made women and girls a priority in the past.

“My message to her and to the world is that education is such a powerful thing… and if we don’t give these girls the resources they need to stay in education, it will [mean the] loss of a generation and [be] very precious in the future,” she added.

UNICEF estimates that 1.57 million children — roughly as many girls as boys — are at risk of dropping out of school in Kenya, 1.14 million in Ethiopia and 900,000 in Somalia, including Somaliland.

It says factors that increase the likelihood of a child dropping out include relocation of the family to other villages with limited educational capacity, a lack of school food programs and parents’ inability to afford essentials such as books and uniforms.

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