Africa: Submission to ACERWC – Impact of Covid-19 On Children’s Education in Africa


35th Ordinary Session

Human Rights Watch respectfully submits this written presentation to contribute testimony from children to the discussion on the impact of Covid-19 on children at the 35th Ordinary Session of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

Submission to ACERWC – Impact of Covid-19 on Children’s Education in Africa

Between April and August 2020, Human Rights Watch conducted 57 remote interviews with students, parents, teachers, and education officials across Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Madagascar, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zambia to learn about the effects of the pandemic on children’s education. Our research shows that school closures caused by the pandemic exacerbated previously existing inequalities, and that children who were already most at risk of being excluded from a quality education have been most affected.

Children Learning Less through Distance Education

Students frequently studied fewer topics or less content through distance learning.

Many students echoed 17-year-old South African Lwandle M. who said she struggled with online learning: “I do not think I have the discipline to sit down and have no one teach me.”[13]

Makena M., a 17-year-old girl from Nairobi, Kenya, said she prioritizes her limited internet data to download learning material for mathematics and science. “Subjects like Christian Religious Education, English, or Kiswahili language, I read from the textbooks that I have.”[14]

Although Nawal L.’s school in Morocco offered online classes, some teachers faced difficulties, she said: “Sometimes we don’t hear from a teacher for the whole day, then he’d show up at 6 saying he didn’t have enough internet credit.” She added, “The physics teacher… just disappeared… She just didn’t give any class.”[15] Nawal estimated that about half of the students attended online classes.[16]

Girls Disproportionately Negatively Affected

Girls face unique barriers to continue to follow formal education from a distance.[23] Taisha S., 16, in Kenya, said her school offered no materials or guidance during school closures, so she got in touch with her science teacher. “He said he would not be able to go to anyone’s home, but they could come to his house. As girls we feared going to his house, but I hear the boys have been going.”[24] A primary school teacher in Nairobi, Kenya, said “With the lockdown, all family members are staying in the house morning to evening. I have had some of the girls call to inform me that they are harassed by their fathers or uncles.”[25]

Girls are often expected to take on childcare responsibilities and household chores. Taisha also said, “My chores have increased of course because schools have closed.” She said that she sometimes missed distance learning classes on television because of her chores at home.[26] Zawadi N., 16, in Nairobi, said she spends almost five hours a day looking after her younger siblings: “There’s much more to do with siblings because I am also acting as a teacher to the younger ones.”[27]

When children need to use technology to study, and access to devices or data is in short supply, boys often end up getting more access to these resources than girls.[28]

Widespread school closures may also increase risks of child marriage, as research by Human Rights Watch in Malawi, South Sudan, and Tanzania shows a strong connection between girls leaving or being out of school and them being forced into marriage.[29] Child marriage–and pregnancy and parenthood–are also factors driving girls out of school, and some schools discourage or ban married, pregnant and parenting girls from attending.[30]

Digital Divide: Limited Access to Technologies

Lack of access to radios, television, computers, internet, and data left many students unable to engage in remote learning. “There were lessons offered on Warsan Radio,” said a 16-year-old in Garissa, Kenya, “But I never tuned in because we don’t have a radio.”[31] In Burkina Faso, a teacher in Boucle du Mouhoun region said that many students he knew “don’t have electricity–not even a lamp to study.”[32] A teacher from Centre-Nord region said of remote learning: “Many [students] don’t even have access to radios, let alone TVs. So this is something that will not cover all the students. There will be discrimination. It will not take all children into account.”[33] A teacher in Congo’s Kasai region said the education ministry had organized television courses, but the city where he lived–with a population of more than 1 million people–is not fully electrified. “How can students follow these courses?”[34]

Many children lack access to the internet, which is increasingly indispensable for education. A teacher in the Mathare informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya, said, “None of the students have access to internet-enabled smartphones. Only a handful have access to mobile phones that can support calling and texting functionalities. Digital learning is not an option.”[35] Kioko Y., 15, in Kenya said he uses his mother’s phone for the internet. His school does not offer online classes, but he uses YouTube and Google for research. “I tend to pick and choose which subjects to research because I cannot stay with my mother’s phone for too long because she runs a business.”[36]

A father in Nigeria said, “[My three children] join in the school’s online classes on my phone because the family has no computer… Although the lessons are on video, the kids only listen to the audio. Sometimes they cannot connect because I do not always have enough data.”[37] A Nigerian mother said, “I had to upgrade [my daughter] to a smartphone so she can access online materials, but I am sometimes unable to pay for data from [my] civil servant salary.”[38] A mother in Lagos, who lost her income after the university where she cleaned shut down due to the pandemic, explained that she could not afford online studies for her two secondary school-aged children. “Their teacher called me to tell me to buy a big phone [smartphone] for online teaching… I don’t have money to feed my family and I am struggling to make ends meet, how can I afford a phone and internet?”[39]

In Morocco, Hynd M.’s mother provides for the family by working as a cleaner. At home they have slow WiFi. Said Hynd: “There is a better plan for faster WiFi. I discussed it with my mom, but she said we can’t afford it. Since the connection is not great, I have to prioritize some lessons over others.”[40]

Inter-Generational Education Inequalities

Caregivers with no to low levels of formal education have greater difficult supporting children with home learning. Taisha S., 16, lives with her two grandmothers in Garissa, Kenya. “I am the only person in this house that has attended school and therefore there is very little to no support.”[43]

A teacher in a low-income neighborhood of Rabat, Morocco, said that after a few weeks of distance learning, “Maybe 10 percent or less of the students are still following today. Those who do, most of the time have educated parents who tell them to keep following.”[44] Khadija F. in Casablanca said “Neither me nor my husband can read or write, so we can’t help our daughters with school.” It was perhaps because he could not read that her husband did not realize that the WhatsApp messages he received on his phone–“from an unknown number, which annoyed him, so he deleted them,” said Khadija–were in fact directions from her children’s teachers. After a neighbor alerted Khadija that the teachers were reaching out this way, the children started doing distance learning.[45]

Children Living in Countries Affected by Armed Conflict and Insecurity

Armed conflict is a major cause for driving many children out of school, and it has only been exacerbated by pandemic school closures. Taisha S., 16, lives in Garissa, Kenya. “We have no access to learning,” she said, adding “This situation did not start with Covid-19. Prior to this we had no lessons for three weeks because a lot of teachers were running away from North Eastern [Province] due to a rise in terrorist incidents.”[53]

An education official in North Kivu, Congo, expressed concerns that without school to engage them, children were at increased risk of being recruited by armed groups operating in the area.[54] A caregiver to four students in the same province said, “Mine have not yet left, but there are children today in the bush with the armed groups.”[55] A parent of two secondary school students in Congo said, “The fear for me regarding my children is that they will get lost and join the armed groups in the region.”[56]

An education NGO worker in one of Cameroon’s Anglophone regions, which have been engulfed in violence since late 2016, said, “With Covid, the government had to restrict children’s access to schools… But before the coronavirus crisis, few schools were already operating properly… Because of [this crisis], it’s difficult to talk about education here.”[57]

In Kadugli, Southern Kordofan, Sudan, paramilitaries from Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces took over a girls’ primary school on June 14, 2020, and began using it as a training base. The school was closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic at the time. The school was supposed to reopen for students to sit secondary-school entrance exams, however, the armed forces did not allow the school to reopen.[58]

In an example of good practice, Mali’s education ministry wrote to the then-defense minister, reminding him of Mali’s commitments under the Safe Schools Declaration to not use schools that were empty due to the pandemic for military purposes.[59]

Human Rights Watch Suggests the Committee Make the Following Recommendations:

Governments should prepare to immediately get children back in school once Covid-19 is under control locally–with careful public health planning, in line with World Health Organization guidance, to prevent and control the spread of Covid-19–including by following up individually with children who do not show up for classes and try to re-engage them. This should include support to girls who married or became pregnant or parents during the school closure.

Before schools physically re-open, those offering remote learning should track which students participate, reach out to those not participating, and try to help them re-engage.

Any governmental and non-governmental efforts to encourage children to return to school when schools reopen should be over-inclusive–that is, should also be directed at children who were excluded from education due to other causes prior to the pandemic.

When schools reopen, governments should ensure that all students have access to free primary education, and ensure secondary education is accessible and free. As part of their Covid-19 response packages, governments should provide financial support to offset school-related expenses for children whose families suffered economic hardship and would not be able to return to school otherwise. In countries where girls’ enrollment or completion of secondary school is lower than boys’, governments should consider launching or continuing financial incentives to ensure parents enable girls return to school as soon as it is safe.

Governments should provide remedial education for children who were unable to follow distance education and for children who were out of school due to other causes prior to the pandemic. Governments should especially focus on children most excluded or at risk: including children with disabilities, children living in poverty, refugee and migrant children, children who work, children in rural areas, paying particular attention to girls within these groups.

Governments should perform due diligence to ensure that any technology they recommend for online learning protects children’s privacy rights. Governments and schools should include data privacy clauses in any contracts they sign with technology or “Ed Tech” providers, in order to protect the data collected on children during this time from misuse. Over the longer term, governments should institute data protection laws for children.

Governments should recognize that digital literacy and access to the internet are increasingly indispensable for children to realize their right to education, and should take all possible measures to provide affordable, reliable and accessible internet service for all students. They should take steps to mitigate disproportionate hardships for poor and marginalized populations, including finding ways to provide discounted and free access to data, services, and computers.

Governments should ensure all children and adolescents can access accurate, rights-based, and age-appropriate information about their sexual and reproductive health, through mandatory comprehensive sexuality education, including by distance learning.

All governments that have yet to do so should endorse and implement the Safe Schools Declaration to protect schools in times of armed conflict.[64]

Governments should protect their education budgets and ensure public education systems are adequately resourced, both to ensure they can adequately respond to existing and emerging needs, and to resource their vision for inclusive education. They should ensure that all schools have access to water and sanitation, sufficient numbers of adequately trained teachers, and appropriate, accessible school infrastructure to prevent overcrowding.

Human Rights Watch encourages the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child to remind states of the strong presumption of impermissibility of any retrogressive measures taken in relation to the right to education.[65]

[1] Some parents began removing their children from school even prior to official closures because they were concerned about Covid-19. Human Rights Watch interview with father of five, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, June 10, 2020; and Gillian Saks, mother of two, Cape Town, South Africa, June 25, 2020.

[2] Human Rights Watch interview with mother of 9-year-old girl from Oicha, Democratic Republic of Congo, June 10, 2020.

[3] Human Rights Watch interview with mother of a 3-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl from Beni, Democratic Republic of Congo, June 12, 2020.

[4] Human Rights Watch interview with 16-year-old girl, Democratic Republic of Congo, June 12, 2020.

[5] Human Rights Watch interview with Alex Herivelona, director of Centre Ankanifitahiana, Antananarivo, Madagascar, June 2, 2020.

[6] Human Rights Watch interview with education official, Butembo, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, June 10, 2020.

[7] Human Rights Watch interview with 16-year-old student, Democratic Republic of Congo, June 20, 2020.

[8] Human Rights Watch interview with 13-year-old girl, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, June 10, 2020.

[9] Human Rights Watch interview with Natalie, 15, Kabwe, Zambia, June 4, 2020.

[10] Human Rights Watch interview with father of five children, Bangui, Central African Republic, June 16, 2020; with secondary school teacher, Bangui, Central African Republic, June 20, 2020; and with mathematics teacher, Bangui, Central African Republic, June 23, 2020.

[11] Human Rights Watch interview with mother of three children, Bangui, Central African Republic, June 30, 2020.

[12] Human Rights Watch interview with Dekha Mohamed A. (not her real name), 14, Garissa, Kenya, June 20, 2020.

[13] Human Rights Watch interview with Lwandle M., 17, Roodepoort, Gauteng, South Africa, June 6, 2020.

[14] Human Rights Watch interview with Makena M. (not her real name), 15, Nairobi, Kenya, June 2020.

[15] Human Rights Watch interview with Nawal L. (not her real name), 16, Marrakesh, Morocco, June 19, 2020.

[16] Human Rights Watch interview with Nawal L. (not her real name), 16, Marrakesh, Morocco, June 19, 2020.

[17] Human Rights Watch interview with Makena M. (not her real name), 15, Nairobi, Kenya, June 2020.

[18] Human Rights Watch interview with Kioko Y. (not his real name), 15, Garissa, Kenya, June 20, 2020.

[19] Human Rights Watch interview with caregiver to four students, Beni, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, June 10, 2020.

[20] Human Rights Watch interview with Joseph S. (not his real name), 16, Cape Town, South Africa, June 25, 2020.

[21] Human Rights Watch interview with father of four from Douala, Cameroon, June 26, 2020.

[22] Human Rights Watch interview with father, Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, June 17, 2020.

[23] Agnes Odhiambo (Human Rights Watch), “How girls’ education and safety will be harmed by the covid response,” African Arguments, April 15, 2020, available at:

https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/15/how-girls-education-and-safety-will-be-harmed-covid-response.

[24] Human Rights Watch interview with Taisha S. (not her real name), 16, Garissa, Kenya, June 20, 2020.

[25] Human Rights Watch interview with teacher, Nairobi, Kenya, June, 2020.

[26] Human Rights Watch interview with Taisha S. (not her real name), 16, Garissa, Kenya, June 20, 2020.

[27] Human Rights Watch interview with Zawadi N. (not her real name), 16, Nairobi, Kenya, June 20, 2020.

[28] OECD, “Bridging the Gender Divide: Include, Upskill, Innovate,” 2018.

[29] “No Way Out: Child Marriage and Human Rights Abuses in Tanzania,” Human Rights Watch report, October 2014; “‘I’ve Never Experienced Happiness,’: Child Marriage in Malawi,” Human Rights Watch report, March 2014; and “‘This Old Man Can Feed Us, You Will Marry Him’: Child and Forced Marriage in South Sudan,” Human Rights Watch report, March 2013.

[30] “Leave No Girl Behind in Africa: Discrimination in Education against Pregnant Girls and Adolescent Mothers,” Human Rights Watch report, June 14, 2018.

[31] Human Rights Watch interview with Taisha S. (not her real name), 16, Garissa, Kenya, June 20, 2020.

[32] Human Rights Watch interview with teacher, Sourou, Boucle du Mouhoun, Burkina Faso, April 29, 2020.

[33] Human Rights Watch interview with principal, Sanmatenga province, Centre-Nord region, April 30, 2020.

[34] Human Rights Watch interview with teacher, Kananga, Democratic Republic of Congo, June 24, 2020.

[35] Human Rights Watch interview with teacher, Nairobi, Kenya, June 2020.

[36] Human Rights Watch interview with Kioko Y. (not his real name), 15, Kenya, June 20, 2020.

[37] Human Rights Watch interview with Timothy B., parent, Federal Capital Territory, Nigeria, June 26, 2020.

[38] Human Rights Watch interview with Olayinka O., parent, Nigeria, June 26, 2020.

[39] Human Rights Watch interview with Margaret O., mother, 40, Bariga, Lagos, Nigeria, August 20, 2020.

[40] Human Rights Watch interview with Hynd M. (not her real name), 18, Casablanca, Morocco, June 18, 2020.

[41] Human Rights Watch interview with Nawal L. (not her real name), 16, Marrakesh, Morocco, June 19, 2020.

[42] Human Rights Watch interview with Hassan Mahfoud, teacher, Rabat, Morocco, June 17, 2020.

[43] Human Rights Watch interview with Taisha S. (not her real name), 16, Garissa, Kenya, June 20, 2020.