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Keeping children in school in drought-prone areas of Ethiopia

Following the severe drought of 2011, an estimated 385,000 Ethiopian school children need “emergency education assistance” according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Speaking with the news agency IRIN, UNICEF’s communication manager in Ethiopia added that this figure didn’t include an additional 70,000 children who form part of the refugee community. Many Ethiopians have been internally displaced by natural disasters such as droughts and floods, or by conflict in certain regions.

When Ethiopia emerged from long years of unrest in 1991, only 3 million children went to primary school. Since that time, the government has been committed to providing universal access to education and abolished primary school fees. 16 million children now attend primary school in Ethiopia, an enrolment rate of over 90%. However, in remote pastoral areas, rates of enrolment are much lower, sometimes below 30%.

In some remote areas, alternative schools have been set up to provide children from seven to 14 with a basic education which covers the first four levels of primary schooling within three years, allowing the children to transition more quickly into formal schools. But it’s hard to keep children in school when crises such as last year’s drought hit rural communities. As families struggled to survive, the Ministry of Education logged a drop-out rate in schools of up to half of pupils in some areas. However, the head of special support and inclusive education at the Ministry told IRIN that the situation was “showing a stabilizing trend”.

The Ministry’s spokesman also explained that the school-feeding programme was managing to draw some children back to school. The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) confirmed to IRIN that it would be aiming to find additional funding for the expansion of the ‘food for education’ programme in the country. Ideally, humanitarian organisations would also like to provide emergency education to crisis-hit areas in order to make up for the time in school which children have lost. However, such programmes would have to be very flexible, since droughts such as the one recently experienced result in mass migrations of families.

The longer children are out of school, the more likely it is that they will never return to education. Experts in the region have therefore suggested that perhaps Ethiopia could change the school calendar in areas where pastoralist and nomadic communities are common, so that the academic year doesn’t fall within the driest period. Then, if families have to leave an area during a particularly dry spell, the children’s education would not be affected.

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