Antofagasta, Chile – High school students in Chile are leading a resurgence in the protests against structural inequality that have rocked the country in recent months.
This week, as a new school year began, many high-school students took to the streets instead of returning to classes, organising marches and other protest actions throughout the country.
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“There is a lot of anger and discontent,” Coordination of Antofagasta Secondary Students spokesperson, Miyaray Jimenez, told Al Jazeera at a student march in Antofagasta, a city 1,335km (830 miles) north of the capital, Santiago.
“For those of us who study in free municipal high schools, the education they give us is terrible,” the 17-year-old added.
Along with an overhaul of healthcare and the privatised pension system, the country’s education system is a top priority for protesters and Chileans in general.
The disparity in quality between public and private school education is a key concern, as is university student debt.
“We want to get the marketplace out of education,” Jimenez said.
445 documented eye injuries
High school students’ protests in October sparked nationwide mass demonstrations against the country’s economic model and structural inequality.
Over the past four-and-a-half months, thousands of protesters have been arrested and injured. Arson, police and military crackdowns and accidents have left more than 30 people dead.
Protests waned in size and frequency by late December, the start of summer holidays in the southern hemisphere, but were expected to pick up again this month.
The writing was literally on the wall in Antofagasta, where “March is coming” messages began popping up last month among the streams of political graffiti in the city centre.
High school students lead a multisector march in downtown Antofagasta, in northern Chile [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera]
Students at several local high schools organised sit-ins, walkouts, blockades and marches at their schools and united to lead broader local marches in the city this week.
Classes were suspended at some locations, and the Carabineros police force cracked down on student protests, resulting in dozens of arrests in Antofagasta and elsewhere.
“We cannot normalise arrests of minors,” Patricia Romo, president of the Antofagasta chapter of the national teachers association, told Al Jazeera.
Police also continue to use controversial pellet projectiles that have caused many of the more than 445 documented eye injuries since protests began in October.
A 17-year-old in Antofagasta sufferedan eye injury this week during a police crackdown on protests, according to Chile’s National Institute of Human Rights.
In Mejillones, a town 65km (40 miles) north of Antofagasta, an 18-year-old was hit, resulting in a total loss of vision in one eye.
“We condemn the repression against our students,” Romo said.
Two-thirds of Chileans believe protests should continue, according to a recent poll by CADEM, a respected polling company. President Sebastian Pinera’s approval rating is 12 percent.
The government has been rolling out incremental reforms for pensions, wages, healthcare and other issues, but they have fallen far short of social movement and protester demands for system change.
Pinera’s government has also been pushing the National Congress to pass a bill to permit military deployment to protect “critical infrastructure”.
Arson, looting and property destruction since October have resulted in billions of dollars in property damage.
During a state of emergency in October, military deployment resulted in grave human rights violations, including killings.
In a televised interview on Sunday, Pinera said he will decree another state of emergency if he deems it necessary to protect public order.
Crackdowns are not going to put an end to protests, according to Ayalen Salgado, 18, a spokesperson for the national Coordinating Assembly of Secondary Students.
“People are still in the streets because they know that even though repression has intensified and more repressive laws have been enacted, there has still been no response to what people are demanding in the streets,” Salgado told Al Jazeera.
“What we have achieved beyond that is unity and organisation between diverse sectors,” she said.
Around the country, women are preparing for massive International Women’s Day marches on Sunday and feminist strike actions the following day.
DNC: Trump’s school push risks lives
The Democratic National Committee on Monday intensified its criticism of President Trump’s push to reopen schools, saying the administration is gambling with lives in a naked attempt to score political points ahead of the fall election. In a new television attack ad, the DNC highlighted how Mr. Trump initially downplayed the virus and questioned whether…
The Democratic National Committee on Monday intensified its criticism of President Trump’s push to reopen schools, saying the administration is gambling with lives in a naked attempt to score political points ahead of the fall election.
In a new television attack ad, the DNC highlighted how Mr. Trump initially downplayed the virus and questioned whether the president can be trusted to protect students and teachers from COVID-19.
“Desperate to reopen schools because he thinks it will save his reelection,” the narrator says in the spot. “Do you trust him to do what is best for our children because this is not a test? Trump is failing.”
The battle over whether schools should open during a pandemic has become a major point of contention in the 2020 presidential election.
Mr. Trump has called on schools to reopen and threatened to withhold federal funding from schools that refuse to open their doors. He says that Democrats do not support the effort because they think it will hurt his reelection.
Presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden has erred more on the side of caution.
Mr. Biden says the president’s slow response to the virus has made it harder for schools to reopen. He has called for federal agencies to establish basic criteria for reopening schools and said that state and local officials should have the final say.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week said that “reopening schools creates opportunity to invest in the education, well-being, and future of one of America’s greatest assets — our children — while taking every precaution to protect students, teachers, staff and all their families.”
On Monday, DNC Chair Tom Perez said in a conference call with reporters the Trump administration has offered school districts little guidance or assistance to help schools open safely and said The White House’s race to reopen schools will “imperil children, school staff and their families.”
“Yet Donald Trump and his damn the torpedoes approach to governance is charging forward with his demand that schools reopen as the virus surges because his it will help his reelection and that is all he cares about,” Mr. Perez said.
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Out of school, forced to fight: Children pay price for Sahel war
Mopti, Mali – Djan Diagahate was 12 years old last year when he watched a group of gunmen storm his village in central Mali and burn it to the ground. His home and his school – everything he knew – were destroyed. More: The Sahel: Key things to know as security crisis spirals France and…
Mopti, Mali – Djan Diagahate was 12 years old last year when he watched a group of gunmen storm his village in central Mali and burn it to the ground.
His home and his school – everything he knew – were destroyed.
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Since then, he has been living in a small tent made of tarp and twigs at a camp for displaced people in Sevare, some 100km (62 miles) from his home in Ballanguine. Instead of going to school, he spends his days sitting around the Chirifila site with his family and other children displaced by the violence that has engulfed Mali and other Sahel countries in recent years.
Diagahate is not alone. An entire generation of children in the country and across the region has fallen years behind their grade level.
A surge in attacks and threats against public schools, teachers and students in Central and West Africa has led to the closure of more than 9,000 schools, including some 900 in Mali, leaving overall nearly two million children without proper education, according to the United Nations children agency (UNICEF).
The attacks often involve beatings and kidnappings of students and teachers alike, said Lauren Seibert, a children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, a US-based NGO.
“A large percentage of children have severe trauma linked to what they experienced in school,” added Seibert, who has spent the last year documenting abuses in the region.
“The attacks are horrific.”
Djan Diagahate, left, watched a group of gunmen storm his village in central Mali and burn it to the ground; Amadou Diagahate, right, is worried for his grandson who has been out of school for a year [Annika Hammerschlag/Al Jazeera]
The situation is especially volatile in Mali, Niger and increasingly in Burkina Faso, where ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda-linked groups have annexed vast swaths of land that have long suffered from weak governance. Along the way, they have exploited intercommunal disputes and widely-held resentments towards local governments to incite violence and recruit new members.
Backed by international allies, state security forces have sought to quell the upheaval but muddled operations at times have killed more civilians than the militias themselves.
In those three countries, gold trafficking has financed the expansion of armed groups and provided access to a steady flow of ammunition, contributing to a six-fold increase in school closures since April 2017.
Goldmines that were neglected by local governments have fallen prey to fighters who see Western-style education, particularly for girls, as a threat to their ideologies.
“Control of the mining sites allows them to extend their influence and gain more funding,” said Jean-Herve Jezequel, the director of the Sahel project for Crisis Group, a conflict research nonprofit. “The mines are full of young men who can be easily recruited into jihadi groups.”
Recruited by armed groups
Local security forces lack the resources needed to combat rebel groups, particularly in rural areas where their authority is challenged, according to Crisis Group.
Since 2015, the number of violent attacks perpetrated by “militant Islamist groups” in the Sahel has doubled each year, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a US Department of Defense research group, said in December 2019. Deaths linked to these attacks have also doubled each year.
In Mali, the conflict has grown largely out of mounting tensions between the Peuhl (also known as Fulani) and Dogon ethnic groups, much of which is stoked by armed groups and exacerbated by competition over the shrinking availability of arable land due to climate change.
Each year is worse than the last: with more than 450 documented killings, 2019 was the deadliest year for civilians in central Mali since the conflict began escalating in 2012, according to Human Rights Watch.
Attacks against Malian children are also on the rise. The first three quarters of 2019 saw some 570 serious violations against children, compared with about 390 in all of 2017, UNICEF says.
In Mali’s Mopti region, which has become the epicentre of the conflict, reports of armed groups burning people alive in their homes, hacking people to death with machetes and dragging commuters out of public buses to be slaughtered are widespread.
The area has seen the closure of more than 600, or 30 percent, of its schools, leaving children such as Diagahate without access to formal education.
“He never used to be like this. He was so jovial,” said Amadou Diagahate, the 13-year-old’s grandfather. Sitting beside him, the boy appeared on the verge of tears as he stared down at his fidgeting hands. He could not muster a single word.
“We are not happy here. This is not our home,” Amadou Diagahate said.
But by some measures, Diagahate is one of the lucky ones. Aid groups have provided shelter and food, and he is being cared for by his family.
Without the protection of a classroom, some children are at a higher risk of being recruited by armed groups.
“They join because they don’t want to die of hunger. They join because if they don’t, another group might kill them,” said Yacouba Maiga, the head of Catholic Relief Services’ Mopti office.
Young girls grind cornmeal on what was once was a school day in Mopti, Mali; their village was attacked and burned to the ground, so they now spend their days doing chores at a camp for displaced people [Annika Hammerschlag/Al Jazeera]
The situation is especially precarious for girls who, out of school, are more vulnerable to being forced into marriage.
A number of African countries including Mali have banned child marriage. But without an education many girls may never learn their rights, said Ghislaine Gatho, the head of the Mopti office for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“People are exploiting the vulnerability of these kids,” she said.
Girls who marry early are more likely to suffer from sexual abuse and early pregnancy, which can lead to fistulas, eclampsia and chronic infections.
Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the primary causes of death for girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Babies born to adolescent mothers are more likely to be premature and suffer from serious conditions such as low birth weight.
International aid organisations and local education authorities are working to implement alternative education methods such as creating community learning centres and broadcasting lessons on the radio.
However, an overall lack of funding and attention from involved governments and the international community is limiting emergency efforts.
Before the violence started, Mali was a warm, welcoming place where even the poorest offered strangers food and water, said Catholic Relief Service’s Maiga. Now, thousands of children, born into a period of conflict, are being raised in a culture of mistrust.
“People are being hunted and they don’t know why. People are having to flee and they don’t know why,” he said.
“There are young people who know nothing other than this crisis.”
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