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Feature: Desperate Times: Students in Tigray region desert schools amid drought-induced hunger

In addition to forsaking their education due to the ongoing drought-induced hunger, students in Tigray are compelled to learn while seated on stones due to the lack of essential teaching materials, such as desks (Photo: Yechilla Abergele District Education Office)

By Mihret G/kristos @MercyG_kirstos

Addis Abeba – In the remote, small rural town of Freweyni, located 80 kilometers north of Mekelle, where the echoes of war still linger like a haunting melody, lies the remarkable tale of a family, headed by a 13-year-old Shewit Shishay.

In the aftermath of a brutal two-year war that has scarred the Tigray region, Shewit and her sisters, who reside in a rented one-bedroom house, stand as a testament to resilience amidst despair.

Their journey, marked by scarcity and sorrow, unfolds against the backdrop of a single ray of aid following the Pretoria Peace Agreement signed by the federal government and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) back in November 2022.

At its center are Shewit, a mere teenager thrust into the role of guardian for her sisters; Hatit, aged 11; and Edlti, a tender three years old.

But their story is not one of mere survival; it’s a heartbreaking saga punctuated by the loss of their youngest sibling, a nine-month-old infant, to hunger and the absence of medical care six months ago.

Shewit works as a laborer at a grinding mill house to procure sustenance for her family. However, despite her admirable endeavors, the available resources prove inadequate.

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In a heartfelt interview with Addis Standard, Shewit delineated the hardships her family encounters, stating, “We are bereft of a father, and our mother, who formerly bore every obligation, is now absent.”

“Despite harboring a fervent desire for education, Shewit regrettably had to discontinue her schooling during the war to ensure the welfare of her sisters, a sacrifice made imperative by the absence of alternatives.

Reflecting on her educational journey, she lamented, “I was learning in the 5th grade; however, the exigencies of the war forced me to drop out.”

She expressed that the challenges of caring for her sister, combined with the pressure of the ongoing drought, hindered her ability to return to school. “I am deeply committed to education and sincerely desire to continue my studies.”

In a poignant appeal for assistance, Shewit articulated her apprehensions regarding the looming prospect of separation from her sisters due to the ongoing threat of hunger.

Her plea, communicated to Addis Standard with emotive solemnity, accentuates the imperative requirement for assistance in a circumstance where the absence of external aid poses a tangible risk to the resilience of familial ties amidst hardship.

Shewit and her sisters are not alone in facing the consequences of the ongoing drought.

Combined with locust infestations, this drought endangers an estimated 91% of Tigray’s population, once again placing them at risk of famine.

The federal Disaster and Risk Management Commission estimates that 2.2 million people in Tigray are affected by the drought. However, the interim administration of Tigray suggests a higher figure: around 4.2 million people, including internally displaced persons (IDPs), are impacted by the crisis.

The severity of the situation has prompted regional authorities, including Getachew Reda, the president of the Tigray interim administration, to draw parallels to the catastrophic famine of the mid-1980s. Recently, he issued a stark warning of imminent “starvation and death” in the war-torn region.

Disturbing reports from the ground indicate that a significant number have already perished due to hunger. In a recent interview with Addis Standard, Gebrehiwot Gebregzabher, Commissioner of the Disaster Risk Management Commission of Tigray, revealed that over 860 individuals have died due to hunger in the past six months.

Students in the Tigray region are among the hardest hit by the drought.

To assess the impact of the drought on students, the Tigray interim administration, in collaboration with the federal government and international and national NGOs, conducted an assessment from November 18 to December 5, 2023. The assessment focused on areas accessible to the regional administration.

According to Kiros Guesh, the head of the Tigray Bureau of Education, out of the projected enrollment of over 2.4 million students, only 40% are currently able to pursue their education in Tigray (Photo: Tigray Bureau of Education/Facebook)

The results of the assessment showed that 36 districts and 213 villages are severely affected by drought, impacting 625 schools and 222,940 students.

In a recent interview with Addis Standard, Kiros Guesh, head of the Tigray Bureau of Education, emphasized that out of an expected enrollment of over 2.4 million students, only 40% have been able to continue with their education.

To address the critical “hunger crisis” in the region, which the administration says is causing an alarming rise in school dropouts, the Tigray Education Bureau issued a formal request recently for immediate assistance from the federal government and the international community.

The expected assistance includes the establishment of a student feeding program to alleviate the negative impact on the educational sector.

According to Kiros, thousands of students living in drought-afflicted areas are on the brink of abandoning their education unless a feeding program is introduced without delay.

Giziyawi Teklay, head of the Education Office at Yechilla Abergele district, relayed to Addis Standard that a considerable number of students, encompassing both elementary and secondary levels, have terminated their education due to the pervasive hunger induced by the ongoing drought.

According to him, among the 23,000 students enrolled at 46 elementary and secondary schools in the district, 4,449 have dropped out.

In response to this alarming circumstance, the administration of Yechilla Abergele district, in conjunction with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other volunteers, initiated school feeding programs in five elementary schools. Consequently, 650 students were successfully reintegrated into the educational system.

However, Giziyawi voiced apprehension regarding the sustainability of the feeding program, underscoring that “its cessation could result in a significant number of students discontinuing their schooling.”

The education sector in Tigray is encountering challenges stemming from the insufficiency of school supplies and teaching materials.

Yechilla Abergele district, in particular, faces impediments in 34 schools, notably concerning issues related to teaching materials such as desks and blackboards.

The lack of crucial supplies like exercise books and pens has necessitated that students rely on oral instruction.

As a result, six schools in Yechilla Abergele district, initially serving grades 1 to 8, have witnessed a decrease in their operational capacity, prompting them to confine their teaching services to grades 1 to 4.

This adjustment is necessitated by the impracticability of accommodating students beyond the 5th grade due to such constraints.

While briefing the delegation led by Dima Nego, chairman of standing committee of Foreign Relations and Peace Affairs at the parliament, experts from the Tigray Disaster Risk Management Commission recently disclosed that 105 schools in the region have been repurposed as shelters for internally displaced persons (IDPs).

According to these experts, an additional 522 schools in the region remain under the control of Eritrean and Amhara forces, rendering them inaccessible to students in the region. AS [/expander_maker]

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