KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI — The west African country of Guinea-Bissau declared its independence from Portugal in 1973, thus beginning an era of instability and conflict. From 1998 to 1999, the country was in the middle of a civil war, sparked by a coup d’état and the overthrow of the sitting president, Joao Bernardo Vieira.
The state of Guinea-Bissau’s government is dire, and is characterized by corruption, poverty and a feeble economy. The past 17 years have seen numerous coups, some successful, and multiple changes in leadership. Because of this instability, education in Guinea-Bissau has suffered drastically. Before it can improve, bold steps must be taken to combat the myriad challenges facing its children every day.
The country’s child mortality rates are some of the worst in the world, as children commonly contend with malnutrition and malaria. More than 50 percent do not have adequate access to vaccines and treatments. Simple and preventable conditions such as diarrhea and respiratory infections claim the lives of many children every year due to lack of access to medicine and facilities.
Additionally, the U.S. Department of Labor reports that the prevalence of child labor in Guinea-Bissau is very high. Forty-seven percent of children are working, from farming and mining to the extremes of sexual exploitation and forced labor.
Without adequate police staff, prisons, judges and equipment, Guinea-Bissau’s justice system has been ineffectual at best in any attempt to hamper illegal activity. As such, the trafficking of weapons, drugs and humans, particularly children, has gained a foothold in the fragile new country.
Perhaps the most egregious challenge to education in Guinea-Bissau is the prevalence of human trafficking. It is common for young boys to attend residential Quranic schools run by Muslim religious teachers called marabouts. These students, known as talibés, are then forced into begging or trafficked into nearby countries such as Senegal or Mali for begging or possible sexual exploitation.
With all of these dangers to children, it is no surprise that only 28 percent of primary-aged children are enrolled and 45 percent of school-aged children do not attend school. But some initiatives have attempted to help bolster the education system. In 2011, the World Food Program (WFP) and UNICEF worked together to distribute more than a million books into Bissau-Guinean schools. Additionally, the WFP works to keep enrollment up, particularly for girls, by providing 126,000 hot meals to students every day.
The largest and most difficult obstacle to overcome in providing stable and accessible education is the eradication of the practice of child trafficking and forced labor. Although the country passed a comprehensive child labor law in 2011, it has yet to enforce it to any significant degree.The marabouts of the Quranic schools often have strong ties to their communities, which dissuades leaders from prosecuting them.
Drastic measures must be taken not just to improve education, but to supplement it with the necessary textbooks, training and teachers to make a significant impact. In addition to disbanding and prosecuting human trafficking rings, increasing education funding would dramatically improve the foundation of prosperity in Guinea-Bissau.
– Emily Marshall