In Niger, the food crisis has forced tens of thousands of children to leave school. Some are migrating with their families in search of work, others are simply too weak to attend. Report by Laura Huyghe and Shushan Mebrahtu
Only a few months ago, 12-year-old Oumar Soumana was happily living with his family in Damana, in south-western Niger. But when the village’s food stocks were depleted – a result of the massive food crisis occurring throughout the Sahel region of Africa – he was forced to leave school and travel to the capital in search of work.
On a recent, sweltering day, Oumar walked down the dusty streets of Niger’s capital, Niamey, carrying a cooler on his shoulder. Inside were ‘appolo’, small plastic bags filled with iced fruit juices, which he sells for a few CFA francs each.
“It is a painful job for me,” he said. “I spend the whole day walking. I do not really rest because I have to sell and bring the money back, otherwise my salary will be reduced, so I prefer to do the maximum.”
Oumar’s boss is a civil servant who makes fruit juices to supplement her income. “She pays me 10,000 [CFA francs, or US$20] at the end of the month,” he said. “She is the one who ensures that I will have my breakfast, my lunch and my dinner.”
Oumar is not alone. According to Niger’s Ministry of National Education, Literacy and Promotion of National Languages, 47,000 children have already left schools this year due to reasons linked to the food crisis. Schools in the regions hardest-hit by the food crisis reported the highest number of dropouts. In Tillaberi, a region in south-western Niger that is one of the worst-affected, nearly 22,000 students have dropped out of school.
Many are forced to leave school because they are too weak to attend or because they must follow their parents as they migrate from villages to towns in search of work. Sometimes the children are put to work to earn extra money to support their families.
Crisis forces children to work
Niger is among the countries worst affected by the Sahel food crisis, a disaster caused by drought, failed harvests and rising food prices. According to Niger’s National Survey on Household Vulnerabilities, nearly 5.5 million people, more than half of whom are children, are currently estimated to be food insecure, representing nearly 35 per cent of the country’s entire population. UNICEF and partners estimate that nearly 394,000 under-5 children are at risk of severe acute malnutrition, a deadly condition, if adequate funding is not made available to provide treatment.
When Damana’s food stocks were almost empty, Oumar and other boys his age left to find work in the capital. There, Oumar was reunited with his two older sisters, who had previously left the village for the same reason. They are now employed as domestic workers.
Oumar and his sisters live together in a makeshift tent in an improvised camp where displaced families have gathered in the suburbs of Niamey. The camp has no running water or sanitation.
The money they earn is sent to their parents in Damana so “they can eat,” Oumar said. They keep only a small amount of money to sustain themselves.
“Here I have to look for food myself, with the risks that I face outside. Some people do not pay and run away, some people threaten me, some people insult me,” Oumar said. “For me, this is not a nice life, and I wish I was in the village with my parents.”
Putting children back to school and preventing dropouts
Back in his village, Oumar had been enrolled in school, and dreamed of becoming a teacher. He knows what he has lost by dropping out and leaving home.
“Through education, it is possible to find a good job and to have a better life,” he said.
UNICEF and its partners are launching ‘catch-up classes’ for children who have left school to help them make up for the missed lessons so they can continue their educations in the next school year. The classes will offer meals to ensure that children are fed and that parents are motivated to have their children attend.
Preparations are also underway to open an additional 500 temporary school canteens targeting schools in the regions worst-affected by the crisis, helping to keep students in school. Children protection measures are also critical for UNICEF, which is strengthening the capacity of social services to identify vulnerable children and provide psychological and other supports for those who are victims of violence.
When the rainy season finally arrives in June, Oumar hopes to go home and work with his father in the fields. “It will be better than selling in the streets and everything. I am suffering here,” he said..