Sahel: Mental health is vital to children in conflict

Monday 10 October 2022

 Seiba Keita / Save the Children

"One market day, armed individuals broke into our village. They captured my father and killed him. We fled to Djenné. I fear that these people will come back and I cry. Sometimes the army is not there to protect us. I received support from EU project workers and a facilitator so that I could be less anxious. Now I don't think about it when I sleep",  Hamadi, 12 - Djenné, Mali.

There are many stories similar to Hamadi's in the crisis-affected areas of the Sahel. Indeed, targeted attacks on schools, students and teachers have become common, affecting children's mental health and education.

Persistent and increasing insecurity in the central Sahel has displaced more than 900,000 children. Direct attacks on education have increased. Today, there are more than 7,000 schools closed in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.

Many children in the region no longer go to school to learn and develop. Indeed, numerous schools are occupied by armed groups or destroyed and no longer offer protection in many areas. These children are then exposed to insecurity and their future becomes uncertain with risks of abuse, abduction, forced labour, early marriage or recruitment by armed groups.

Since July 2020, an emergency education programme integrating child protection and mental health and psychosocial support has been launched in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali. These opportunities to launch integrated humanitarian responses must be multiplied to meet the critical needs of the populations affected by the crises in the Sahel.

Hamadi, like other children his age, has the right to education, protection and well-being for a harmonious development. Thanks to this programme, the 12-years-old child is currently enrolled in a learning programme alongside many Malian boys and girls.

“Between conflict-related violence and displacement, these people have to cope with the sudden change in their living conditions. The physical, economic and social losses caused by the events have a significant psychological and psychosocial impact on communities, especially children.

In Djenné (Mali), where Hamadi now lives, as in several crisis zones in the Sahel, there is an urgent need to find mechanisms for rapid assistance to children who have psychosocial distress due to conflict, forced displacement and school drop-out.  

The European Union has partnered with Save the Children to address the learning, safety and mental health needs of children in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. The pilot partnership programme (PPP) funded by the EU humanitarian budget provides a rapid and continuous integrated response in education, protection, mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) for children in emergencies.

In towns such as Djenné in Mali, Dori in Burkina Faso and Téra in Niger, many schools host children displaced by the violence. The EU-funded project provides them with the necessary resources to study and develop in a protective environment that respects their well-being.

In 2022, Save the Children is supporting 176 schools in thethree countries for a total of 130,523 children, including 41,767 internally displaced ones, by strengthening the capacity of formal schools to absorb the flow of displaced children and offering opportunities for didactic and pedagogic training while distributing school materials to facilitate the learning of affected children. For 2023, we are targeting 86 schools hosting 37,916 pupils including 16,499 displaced children.

And to better meet the needs of children affected by forced displacement, the programme rolls out a rapid response initiative that supports their protection, well-being and education. Through the Integrated Rapid Response for Children (RIRE), Save the Children enables thousands of children to be cared for in safe and protective learning spaces within 3 months after the displacement and helping them to reintegrate formal school.

This approach is implemented by multi-disciplinary mobile teams and recreational facilitators. These mobile teams are composed of trained psychological first aid workers whose role is to assist children, parents and tutors in distress, help identify their immediate needs and facilitate their access to essential and specialised services.

The facilitators are drawn from the local communities. They are trained and supported by the program’s social workers and mental health and psychosocial support specialists to better detect signs of psychosocial distress, including feelings of anxiety, fear, sadness, confusion, lack of concentration and behavioural changes such as aggression and isolation.

In Djenné, such a programme gives a glimmer of hope to Hamadi, and many other children supported through formal and non-formal education. Ultimately, in all three countries, the programme aims to support 169,033 boys and girls living in camps for internally displaced people and host communities and enable them to access quality, continued learning and mental health support in safe and protective environments.

By Ali Thienou, Communications and Advocacy Officer, Save the Children in Mali.