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A school classroom in the Anglophone region of Cameroon. © 2018 Bede Sheppard/Human Rights Watch

On January 30, armed separatists kidnapped Marie (not her real name), a 19-year-old secondary school student, in Buea, in Cameroon’s Anglophone South-West region. Three days later, they chopped her finger off with a machete.

The reason? Marie wanted to go to school.

Since 2017, armed separatist groups have enforced a boycott of education in the country’s two English-speaking regions, as part of a perverse attempt to pressure the government to get greater political recognition.

They’ve burned school buildings and kidnapped and assaulted students and teachers for not complying with their demands to keep schools shut. They have used schools as bases, torturing and holding people hostage in and near them.

“They punished me because they found schoolbooks in my bag,” said Marie. “They wanted to cut a finger of my right hand to prevent me from writing again. I begged them [not to], and then they chopped the forefinger of my left hand.”

Marie said the separatists also maimed a 19-year-old man who was held with her and also accused of attending school. Both students were released on February 3, after a ransom payment. They have received medical treatment but have not yet returned to school.

Separatists’ attacks on schools, students, and teachers in the Anglophone regions have had a devastating impact on education. According to United Nations agencies, nearly 600,000 children have been prevented from going to school since late 2016, and only 19 percent of primary and secondary schools are open across the North-West and South-West regions. Government forces have been implicated in one arson attack at a school, according to open source investigators.

In September 2018, Cameroon announced its endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration, one of 28 African Union members to join this international political commitment to protect education during armed conflict. Clearly, far more needs to be done by the government to ensure children can return to school safely and to promote alternative forms of education, including teaching by radio, the internet, or television, for those students who cannot yet return.

In their brutal campaign, separatists are using education as a weapon for political gains and are robbing an entire generation of children of their fundamental right to education. Separatist leaders should immediately direct their fighters and followers to stop interfering with children’s education. 

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