The political crisis in Côte d'Ivoire is hitting an already broken education system, with gunfire disrupting classes, teachers staying home for political reasons and families increasingly desperate about their children's schooling.
Under-investment and instability in recent decades have weakened education in Côte d'Ivoire and many development projects - now suspended - called for strengthening basic services such as health and education. Even before this crisis, the country was unlikely to reach the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015, according to the World Bank.
Now, with the chaotic outcome of presidential elections, students are "held hostage", as one educator put it; teachers and parents fear the 2010-2011 scholastic year will be lost.
More than a week after classes were to resume after the holiday break, many classrooms remain empty.
"It's a shame that school is hostage to politics," said Claude Kadio, president of the Ivoirian parents and students organization, OPEECI.
"Students must not be sacrificed at the altar of partisan and selfish interests."
With both Alassane Ouattara and incumbent Laurent Gbagbo claiming the presidency, the pro-Ouattara coalition Rassemblement des Houphouëtistes pour la démocratie et la paix (RHDP) has called for civil disobedience. In the north - cut off from the Gbagbo-government-controlled south in the 2002 rebellion - schools are closed in response to the appeal, according to Save the Children in Côte d'Ivoire, which is monitoring the impact of the crisis on education.
This means some 800,000 primary-age students are not in school, the agency says.
Even in non-rebel areas, schools are paralysed. "Since this call by the RHDP, not a single lesson is taking place in Bondoukou," said Mathurin Kouadio, a philosophy teacher in the northeastern city. "It is not certain that we will be able to complete the planned school agenda for this year and hold proper end-of-year exams."
In the central town of Dimbokro - Ouattara's birthplace - teachers' union leader Amadou Traoré said: "As long as Alassane Ouattara does not take over power in the country, we will not hold a single class for the students."
Education by gunfire
In the southern commercial capital, Abidjan, school is officially open but sporadic violence is disrupting schedules.
Photo: Alexis Adélé/IRIN
|As in past years of conflict, students are paying a heavy price, parents and educators say|
"The situation is bad for us [students]," said Sévérine Singoh, a student in the Abobo District of Abidjan. "While we are in class we get calls that there is gunfire in this or that area and then it's utter panic. These days we are gripped by fear as we go to school."
In some areas children show up to teacher-less classrooms; some instructors who want to return to school say they fear attacks by pro-Ouattara militants if they follow the Gbagbo government's recent call to resume classes.
Jean-Marie Kimou, father of three, said he doubted children could learn in such conditions.
"What could they possibly learn in such an environment? Better they stay at home. We are all gripped by fear - danger can come from anywhere."
Save the Children says it has seen important gains from its 2005-2010 programme to improve access to school, reinforce teachers' skills and ensure child protection. Of particular concern were children missing out on school in the north where teachers had fled or in the west where communities were displaced by violence - fallout from the earlier conflict.
Asked whether the advances made by Save the Children and partner institutions in improving education had now been lost, Elkane Mooh, Save the Children-Côte d'Ivoire director of programmes, said it was too soon to say there had been a permanent setback. "Many of the things we put in place, including teacher training and education for children about their rights, remain. But if the crisis continues we will have reason to worry about backsliding." He said Save the Children and other organizations in the education sector planned to make an appeal to teachers' unions to resume classes.
UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Cote d'Ivoire is urging communities to help keep school on track. Given the current situation with two governments claiming power, it is difficult to appeal to top decision-makers, Louis Vigneault-Dubois, UNICEF-Cote d'Ivoire head of communications, told IRIN.
"We are trying to talk with communities, to tell them not sending their children to school is to their disadvantage. We are telling them children should not suffer from the political situation and that families should take responsiblity for their children's education." He added that given the volatile situation throughout the country it remains "very challenging" even to reach out to communities in this way.