Sahel: Mental health is vital for children in conflict – Mali

from Ali Tienow, Communications and Advocacy Officer, Save the Children Mali.

“One market day, armed men invaded our village. They captured my father and killed him. We escaped to Jena. I am afraid that these people will come back and I am crying. Sometimes the military is not there to protect us. I got support from EU project workers and a facilitator so I could be less anxious. Now I don’t think about it when I sleep,” Hammadi, 12 – Djenne, Mali.

There are many stories like Hammadi’s in the crisis-hit areas of the Sahel. Indeed, targeted attacks on schools, students and teachers have become commonplace, affecting children’s mental health and education.

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

Many children in the region no longer go to school to learn and develop. Indeed, many 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.

An emergency education program including child protection and mental health and psychosocial support has been launched in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali since July 2020. 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.

Hammadi, like other children of his age, has the right to education, protection and well-being for harmonious development. Thanks to this program, the 12-year-old is currently enrolled in a curriculum alongside many Malian boys and girls.

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

In Djenne (Mali), where Hammadi now lives, as well as in several crisis areas in the Sahel, there is an urgent need to find mechanisms to quickly help children who have psychosocial distress due to conflict, forced displacement and dropping out of school.

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

In cities such as Djenne in Mali, Dori in Burkina Faso and Thera in Niger, many schools take in children displaced by the violence. The EU-funded project provides them with the necessary resources for training and development in a protected environment that respects their well-being.

In 2022, Save the Children supports 176 schools in the three countries in total 130,523 children, including 41,767 internally displaced, by strengthening the capacity of formal schools to absorb the flow of displaced children and offering didactic and pedagogical training opportunities, while distributing school materials to facilitate the learning of affected children. For 2023, we are targeting 86 schools, which accommodate 37,916 students, including 16,499 displaced children.

And to better meet the needs of children affected by forced displacement, the program is introducing a rapid response initiative that supports their protection, welfare and education. Through Rapid Integrated Response for Children (RIRE)Save the Children enables thousands of children to be cared for in safe and protective learning spaces 3 months after the move and helps them reintegrate into the formal school.

This approach is implemented by multidisciplinary mobile teams and recreation facilitators. These mobile teams are made up of trained psychological first aid workers whose role is to help children, parents and carers in distress, help identify their immediate needs and facilitate their access to basic and specialist services.

Facilitators are drawn from 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 behavioral changes such as aggression and isolation.

In Djenné, such a program gives a glimmer of hope to Hammadi and many more children supported through formal and non-formal education. Ultimately, in all three countries the program aims to support 169,033 boys and girls living in IDP camps and host communities and enabling them to access quality, ongoing mental health training and support in a safe and secure environment.

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