The children of West Africa have seen too much. Nine months into an unprecedented Ebola epidemic that has infected 17,942 people and left at least 6,338 dead, West Africa’s smallest citizens have borne witness to one of the greatest health crises the world has ever seen.
An estimated 4,000 kids in the most affected areas—Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone—have lost both parents; many more have lost at least siblings, friends, and neighbors. The epidemic has wreaked havoc on the nations in which the children live—countries that had just begun rebuilding after tumultuous civil wars. Among the casualties with the most dangerous implications for their future is education.
In mid-summer, as the epidemic swept through the region, schools closed one by one. As of this week, not a single one has reopened. In the absence of typical classrooms and curriculums, West Africans have opted for alternate methods of learning and education. With the help of UNICEF, the nonprofit Concern Worldwide, and others, they’re finding success with an alternate medium: Radio.
According to estimates from a recent Global Business Coalition for Education (GBCE) report, 5 million children in the three most affected countries are currently out of school due to Ebola. With schools transformed into isolation centers and educational staff committed to fighting the epidemic, education has lost its resources. An educational radio initiative has the potential to reach millions in West Africa. Will it?
“We need to remember that before Ebola, the three most affected countries, they had one of the world’s worst education indicators,” Sayo Aoki, UNICEF’s education specialist, tells me. “But with the crisis, the education systems have just been further weakened.” While parents have tried to keep teaching their children at home, Aoki says cultural changes in the community due to Ebola have had a “huge impact” on the children in these countries. “Simple joys of life—hugging, kissing, coloring—they have been taken away,” she says.
As the communities in West Africa continue to fight the epidemic, UNICEF is working to make the radio programs more “child friendly,” and to help them spread education about Ebola and other issues. Humanitarian non-profit Concern Worldwide has also taken up the fight, telling Voice of America that it is hoping to reach 10,000 kids in Sierra Leone, using 2,000 radios. “They talk to the children who are listening as though they can hear them…. So they’ll say…'Good morning children, today we’re going to learn about…” Amy Folan, education coordinator for Concern Worldwide, tells VOA. “Then they ask questions and they have time for children to be able to respond as well,” Folan added.
Aoki says she is surprised by how little attention the education emergency in West Africa has garnered. “The Ebola crisis has been seen as predominantly health, but I think its important to realize the impact goes way beyond the health perspective,” she says. “Therefore the response needs to be beyond the health perspective.”
Most recent data from UNESCO puts Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone’s literacy rates for youth at some of the lowest in the world. In Guinea, just 42 percent of the population aged 15-24 can both read and write a “short simple statement” in their everyday life. In Liberia, the number is just over 54 percent—Sierra Leone, 67 percent. In 2011, all three countries reported less than 50 percent literacy in their adult population. Guinea, with 25 percent, recorded the lowest adult literacy rate in the world at that time.
The reason the current trend is alarming is twofold. For one, it leaves the parents of children in these countries without any sort of childcare during the day while they are at work—leaving some with no choice but to quit their jobs or leave their kids at home alone. Secondly, as GBCE reports, it puts the kids themselves at a higher risk of dropping out of school, or abandoning it all together.
“With children out of school indefinitely, Ebola threatens to reverse years of educational progress in West Africa where literacy rates are already low and school systems are only now recovering from years of civil war,” writes Gordon Brown, UN Special Envoy for Global Education. “If we do not address our failure to deliver this basic human right in emergencies, millions of young people, those far beyond the borders of the three affected countries affected will continue to shoulder the burden of our inaction.”
Outside of concerns for the lack of education the kids are receiving, is worry about how they will spend their time instead. Chernon Bah, co-founder of A World at School, was alarmed by what she witnessed recently in Sierra Leone. “It is evident that the lack of education has taken a large toll. I have met girls who have become pregnant and are now planning weddings,” says Bah. “They should have instead had the option to go to school. To combat Ebola, we need to make sure we reopen safe schools as soon as possible. I urge donors to prioritize and finance education.”
“Radio is something people have access to, it’s something they do listen to,” says Aoki of the new strategy. “Although it’s not perfect, we are moving forward. It is a work in progress.”