NIAMEY, Niger (February 26, 2012) — The effect of food insecurity on children's health is obvious; children, particularly those under age five, are vulnerable to life-threatening malnutrition.
Less obvious is the devastating impact of the crisis on children's education. When there is not enough to eat, school can quickly become an afterthought.
This is the scenario now facing countless families in the Sahel region of Africa, where a food crisis is looming. Particularly at risk are children in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad and localized areas of Senegal.
Zara, 14, and Oumou, 16, are cousins from Bégorou Tondou Village in Niger's Tillabery region—an area that has been especially hard hit by drought and poor harvests. Their family is surviving on just one meal a day, and the situation has become so desperate that the girls’ fathers both left to find work in Ghana. Zara and Oumou have not heard from them since.
They are, however, still attending school—at least for the time being.
"We have never had so little food," said Oumou. "Of course, I want to continue going to school, but sometimes I am so hungry and low on energy that I cannot even see the blackboard."
Zara said that if the situation does not improve, they may have to stop attending altogether. Some of their classmates have done just that: Since October 2010, the number of students attending their school has dropped from 180 students to under 100.
While some left school because they are too weak to attend class, others left when their families moved away to find food and work. According to HELP, an international NGO, entire villages in the Tillabery region have moved from their traditional land because the food from October's harvest—meant to last for six months or more—had already run out.
Some displaced families have moved across the border into Burkina Faso, while others from rural areas have migrated to urban centers. In both cases, access to education is extremely limited.
Twelve-year-old Semana and his family are now living on the outskirts of Niamey. Several months ago, they were forced to move from their village, approximately 37 miles away, to find food. He has not been in school since.
"It is not an option for me right now because I must work with my father to earn money for the food we eat," he said. He helps his father transporting goods by donkey cart, work that yields approximately 1.3 francs CFA (US$2.60) per day.
Many parents traveling to search for work leave their children in villages where they are guaranteed at least one meal a day through school meal programs.
Souleye's parents left him in the care of his grandmother in Bégorou Tondou, where he receives two meals a day attending the local school. They will not return until the next harvest, in October at the earliest.
"Last year was okay, but not this year," Souleye said. "I eat at school during the day, but it is not enough. Sometimes, I cannot sleep at night because of stomach cramps."
And the situation could become even more precarious. The food at the canteen is limited, and if the canteen stops operating, many students will be forced to leave, further interrupting their educations.
"We have enough food to last another week," said Ibrou Salifou, school headmaster in Bégorou Tondou. "If we have to stop the canteen, families with children will leave the village, and we will be forced to close the school."
Prolonged interruption in school attendance impairs children’s overall educational development, undermining the future employment opportunities and perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
In Niger, 66% of the population lives below the poverty line and educational indicators are already among the lowest in the world. Given these conditions, the importance of keeping children in school cannot be overstated.
UNICEF is working with the government and partners, including the World Food Program, to provide emergency school feeding, construct classrooms for displaced children and expand school capacity in host communities, among other interventions.
But more help is needed. UNICEF requires US$30 million to continue its response to the needs of Nigerian children through 2012. UNICEF and its partners are also calling on the international community to intensify efforts on behalf of children threatened by the food crisis.
It is not too late, but the world must act now.