In-Depth AnalysisSocial Affairs

Shattered dreams: Conflict, drought threaten education of millions in Amhara region

Despite the ongoing conflict and enduring drought in the Amhara region, over half of the schools have succeeded in opening their doors. Nevertheless, numerous schools still have only a partial student population (Photo: Amhara Education Bureau/Facebook)

By Zelalem Takele @ZelalemTakelee

Addis Abeba – At just 18 years old, Desalegn Mekuria’s (name changed) journey encapsulates the profound impact of the ongoing conflict in the Amhara region. Born into a destitute farming family in the remote reaches of East Gojjam, his parents made sacrifices to provide him with a chance at education. Renting a modest dwelling in the neighboring town of Gancha district, they aimed to spare him the two-hour daily trek to school, allowing him to channel his energy into his studies.

Fueled by a burning determination to excel in this year’s pivotal national exams, Desalegn harbored ambitious aspirations of becoming his village’s first-ever doctor. Yet, with his school forcibly closed for months due to the escalating violence in the vicinity, his cherished dreams now dangle precariously by a fraying thread.

With his school closed for months due to nearby hostilities, Desalegn has been forced to return to his family’s impoverished farm, situated even further away. The devastating effects of the conflict extend beyond the classroom, as shelling has also destroyed part of his family’s ripening crops.

“My parents have lost all hope of classes resuming again,” Desalegn told Addis Standard over the phone.

Cut off from his studies and devoid of access to preparatory materials for the coming grade 12 exam, Desalegn’s spirit is crushed. “As a grade 12 student facing these vital exams, I find myself without any means to continue my education independently,” he said. “As hope has escaped me, I must now contemplate seeking alternative employment.”

The dream of attending university seems increasingly out of reach for not only Desalegn but for millions of primary and secondary students in a war-stricken Amhara region, amplifying the far-reaching consequences of the ongoing conflict.

The Amhara region remains entrenched in a state of conflict, with ongoing clashes between the federal government and the non-state militia, Fano, creating a highly precarious security situation. These confrontations have impeded vital infrastructure development and essential public services, paralyzing everyday civilian activities.

Education under threat from conflict

The conflict’s impact is far-reaching, causing the destruction of school infrastructure. Recently, the United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) disclosed that on 06 November, a primary school in the Wadera district was reportedly bombed by a government-operated drone, causing the tragic deaths of seven individuals, including three teachers. The UN agency also stated that members of Fano had supposedly occupied sections of the school grounds prior to the airstrike.

The education sector in the region has been severely affected, with universities recently declaring the suspension of academic activities due to the ongoing conflict.

In a statement released by the Amhara University Presidents’ Forum, it was explained that all 10 government universities located in the Amhara region have unanimously decided not to resume classes until the security situation improves. The reasons for this decision include the dangerous condition of roads, the inability to ensure the safety of students, and the logistical challenges faced by suppliers in transporting goods.

The primary and secondary levels of education are no different. In early October, the Amhara Education Bureau released a report stating that around 3.9 million primary and secondary students, out of the total six million eligible children, are unable to pursue their education this academic year. The unfortunate cause behind this is the ongoing conflict between the federal government and the non-state militia, Fano.

In the past month, there has been a semblance of normalcy in areas less impacted by the ongoing conflict. Regional authorities have reported a cautious resumption of schooling in these areas, with 60% of primary school students and 55% of secondary school students attending classes.

As a grade 12 student facing a vital exam, I find myself without any means to continue my education.”

A student in the East Gojjam Zone

Mulunesh Desse, the head of the Amhara Education Bureau, recently stated that areas with security concerns within the Amhara region are facing significant educational setbacks. Approximately half of the students in the East, West, and North Gojam zones are unable to attend school due to the conflict.

Teachers and administrators are currently engaged in discussions regarding effective strategies to assist sixth, eighth, and twelfth graders in catching up on academic progress as they get ready for significant regional and national examinations this year. However, Mulunesh has underscored the importance of stability in order for education to fully resume without encountering any additional disruptions.

Amsale Aklilu (name changed), a teacher at Ethio Japan Secondary School in Debre Markos, told Addis Standard that despite classes resuming and active teaching by instructors, student attendance levels are alarmingly low. She said this can be attributed to pervasive concerns among rural families regarding the unpredictable outbreaks of violence in the region. “These families are choosing to keep their children at home to ensure their safety rather than risk sending them to school each day.”

According to Amsale, urban students, too, are experiencing a noticeable decrease in attendance due to growing parental anxieties following recent incidents in nearby areas.

The teacher also highlighted that chronic absenteeism is posing a significant hindrance to learning progress, especially for students in crucial Grades 8 and 12, who are required to sit for high-stakes nationwide examinations. “While teachers are employing various strategies to help prepare their pupils, consistent attendance and active engagement from students are fundamental prerequisites for reasonable success in these exams,” she explained.

Amsale firmly asserts that in order for education services to return to normal and for students to achieve the expected outcomes in the upcoming high-stakes tests, security conditions in the region need to stabilize, and violence must cease.

“It is crucial that attendance levels increase sustainably going forward,” she said. “This will allow for a conducive learning environment and give students the necessary opportunity to excel academically.”

Many students and teachers are currently grappling with the added burden of limited resources in schools. Two weeks ago, the regional education bureau announced its efforts to address this issue by distributing educational resources worth over 444 million birr to schools.

Kobel Industry Co., Ltd. has been contracted to manufacture a variety of essential school items, including more than 46,000 student seats, blackboards, teachers’ chairs, and tables.

During a visit to the factory premises on 14 November, 2023, Mulunesh expressed her commitment to intensifying the provision of resources to schools. Kobel Industry’s CEO, Melak Alemu, on the other hand, stated that the company has already delivered educational materials worth over 58 million birr to the bureau.

Two weeks ago, Mulunesh Desse (left), the head of the Amhara Education Bureau, visited the factory premises of Kobel Industry Co., Ltd., a company contracted to manufacture a variety of essential school resources worth 444 million birr (Photo: Amhara Education Bureau/Facebook)

Unfortunately, students in the Amhara region also experience shortages of school supplies such as student exercise books. Nevertheless, officials assure that this problem will be promptly resolved. Recently, Mulunesh announced that the bureau has issued a tender to procure exercise books worth 100 million birr, which will be distributed to students.

The delivery of textbooks is experiencing delays as well. As per the Ministry of Education, over 22.7 million secondary school textbooks have been published since the introduction of the new curriculum last year. Currently, the Ministry has distributed over 10 million textbooks to regional and city administrations. However, due to a shortage, each textbook will need to be shared by a minimum of four students.

Education crisis worsening by drought

Unfortunately, the impact on school attendance levels in the Amhara region extends beyond conflicts, as the ongoing drought is worsening the already fragile education system in the area.

According to a recent report by Addis Standard, the Sehala district in the Amhara region, which is severely affected by drought, experienced a notable decline in student attendance at the beginning of the new school year. As a consequence of the persistent drought, more than 6,000 students who were previously enrolled in the district have been compelled to withdraw from school or were unable to register.

Situated in the Wagihimra Zone of the Amhara region, the Sehala district has been suffering from minimal rainfall for several months. Tragically, this prolonged drought has led to at least six deaths due to starvation in the Sehala district.

According to education officials, there has been a concerning increase in the number of students in Wagihimra Zone who have withdrawn from schools this academic year. They stressed that thousands of previously enrolled students are abandoning their education altogether, as their families are left with no choice but to migrate in order to ensure their survival.

Local residents have also indicated that the worsening water shortage has compelled many parents to withdraw their children from school, as they now need their assistance in animal herding and finding work to provide for their families. As a result of this large-scale migration, the education of numerous students has been severely disrupted.

The situation in Jan Amora district, located in the North Gonder Zone, is equally dire. Alemu Abebe, a security guard at the district’s high school, revealed to Addis Standard that he has noticed a significant decline in student attendance in Mesha Kebele, located in Jan Amora district.

Last year, Alemu witnessed thousands of students walking for hours every day from various parts of the district to study. However, now he only sees around 100 to 150 students.

Alemu, who has been a resident of Mesha Kebele for a long time, also mentioned that he heard reports indicate all primary schools in the rural outskirts of Jan Amora have been completely shut down.

Many families are choosing to keep their children at home to ensure their safety rather than risk sending them to school each day.”

An elementary school teacher in Debre Markos city

“As families have resorted to distress migration towards urban centers in search of livelihood opportunities, younger children are disappearing from the schools,” Alemu revealed.

Recently, Shegaw Tesema, the head of Jan Amora district, highlighted several challenges the area faces due to persistent drought conditions. In an interview with Addis Standard, Shegaw disclosed that severe water shortages have forced residents of two administrative units to relocate in search of water supplies. Furthermore, he indicated that the lack of veterinary medicines and animal feed has led to a substantial rise in livestock mortality throughout the district.

Multiple primary and secondary schools in Jan Amora districts also lack essential learning materials such as textbooks and writing implements. As a result, students are forced to reuse materials from previous academic years.

While the district has managed to prevent human deaths from starvation that were previously occurring, Shegaw acknowledges that the drought continues to affect the education sector, leading to high dropout rates as families struggle with the economic consequences.

“There is an urgent need for further support for communities affected by the drought and investments to enhance their resilience,” stressed Shegaw.

The predicament faced by students like Desalegn encapsulates the profound reverberations of the ongoing conflict and persistent drought, leaving countless young minds like his teetering on the precipice of shattered dreams.

As peace continues to elude the region, the urgent need for support and opportunities becomes increasingly imperative, lest an entire generation be left stranded without the chance to fulfill their aspirations. AS

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