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Submission to the Committee on the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child on the State of Eritrea

39th Ordinary Session, 2022

This submission relates to the review of the State of Eritrea under the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. This submission focuses on barriers to realizing the right to education and the country’s efforts to protect education from attack during armed conflict.

Barriers to the Right to Primary and Secondary Education (article 11)

Forced conscription of Students

Human Rights Watch research found that each year, since 2003, the Eritrean government forces all final year secondary school, Grade 12, students into military training at the isolated Sawa military camp even before finalising their schooling.[1] While most students are over 18 when they enroll in Grade 12, some are still children and are being forcibly conscripted in violation of international standards. Students spend one year in Sawa and follow a schedule that combines secondary school exam preparation classes with mandatory military training. 

Military officials control and run Sawa and subject students to military-style discipline, ill-treatment, and physical punishments for minor infractions, and forced labor. Students described being beaten with sticks; made to roll in soil while being beaten; left in the sun for prolonged periods of time with their hands tied; and made to carry heavy water containers and do repeated physical exercises for minor infractions.

After one year at Sawa, youth are, largely based on how well they do in their exams, either forced to join the army, or channeled into vocational training programs or into further education and later conscripted to work for the government in a civilian capacity.

Human Rights Watch found that some secondary school students intentionally fail classes to stay in the lower grades. Others drop out, but live in fear of government roundups in which youth without student cards risk being sent directly into military training and service.

Instead of developing a pool of committed, well-trained, career secondary school teachers, Human Rights Watch found that the government conscripts teachers, also for indefinite service, giving them no choice about whether, what, or where to teach. In many cases, the quality of instruction in secondary schools is poor because of a largely absent or unmotivated teaching corps, with many teachers fleeing abroad. Sometimes students are without any teacher at all for weeks.

The Eritrean government has developed numerous education policies and plans, including Education Sector Development Plan (ESDP), 2013 to 2017, the first such plan, and then Education Sector Plan (ESP) covering 2018 to 2022. While these plans acknowledged many chronic problems impacting education, including overcrowding, high repetition, and dropout rates, as well as teacher shortages and absenteeism they did not acknowledge the impact that national service has on the rights of students and teachers themselves, and on how they contribute to the chronic education challenges limiting access to quality secondary education; much less acknowledge other blatant abuses within the system.

Although the government has initiated some education reforms, primarily in elementary and vocational training, it has refused to dismantle the repressive system that undermines students’ rights and their access to quality education. The government has justified linking education and mandatory military service in the last year of secondary school as a way to cultivate an ethic of hard work and nationalism, and, more recently, justified indefinite national service as a means of providing jobs for the country’s youth in the absence of a functional economy.

In September 2020, amid Covid-19 pandemic measures that included strict movement restricts and school closures, the government once again sent students to the Sawa military camp, exposing them to the Covid-19 virus.[2]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee asks the government of Eritrea:

  • What mechanisms it has in place to ensure that no one under the age of 18 undergoes compulsory military service?
  • Steps it has taken to disassociate secondary school education from mandatory military training including ending the requirement that students undertake their last year of schooling at the Sawa military camp and ensuring that Grade 12 students have the option finishing secondary school education at other public secondary schools?
  • What steps it is taking to develop a corps of trained, regular teachers who voluntarily choose to teach? and
  • What measures has the government taken, as discussed during the previous review,[3] to ensure that acts amounting to torture, inhumane and degrading treatment notably at Sawa military training camp, are banned and those responsible for such acts prosecuted and punished accordingly?

Human Rights Watch encourages the Committee to make the following recommendations:

  • Ensure that the education system is not used for military training prior to full military service, and:
  • Immediately cease forced recruitment of children under the age of 18 into military service;
  • Immediately release anyone under the age of 18 currently undergoing compulsory military training and service;
  • Establish mechanisms to ensure that no one under 18 undergoes compulsory military training;
  • Immediately disassociate secondary school education from mandatory military training by immediately ending the requirement that students undertake their last year of schooling at Sawa military camp and ensuring Grade 12 students have the option of finishing secondary education at other public secondary schools and be taught by trained, regular teachers who voluntarily choose to teach;
  • Prohibit the use of national service conscripts, students, and others as a source of forced labor, including on development projects such as mining and in government and military officials’ farms and businesses;
  • Investigate and prosecute all government officials, including military officers at Sawa, suspected of committing, ordering or assisting torture or cruel and degrading treatment of students, detainees, and national service conscripts;
  • Prohibit the assignment of women and girls to conduct forced domestic labor in military officials’ quarters during schooling and mandatory military service at Sawa;
  • Establish an independent, robust complaints mechanism that allows national service conscripts to report allegations of ill-treatment, including but not limited to physical force, incarceration, sexual harassment and violence, and other abuses safely and anonymously. Perpetrators of abuse should be held to account.
  • Comply with the International Labour Organization’s Forced Labour Convention and the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention.

Protections for Students who are Pregnant or are Mothers

The State of Eritrea continues to face high rates of teenage pregnancy according to UN Population Fund Data: 76 per 1000 girls and women aged 15-19 gave birth.[4]  Only 45 percent of girls are enrolled in secondary education, compared to 50 percent of boys, according to UNESCO data.[5] Furthermore, gross enrolment in basic education has been declining in Eritrea. Early marriage, and pregnancy, hinder girls’ access to education.[6] Forced conscription of students also impacts girls’ retention in secondary education – girls may choose pregnancy over education to avoid forced military training.

At the International Conference on Population and Development, 179 countries, including the State of Eritrea, agreed that “Countries should take affirmative steps to keep girls and adolescents in schools.”[7] In 2013, African Union (AU) members states adopted Agenda 2063, a continent-wide development strategy committed to sustained investments in education, including the “elimination of gender disparities at all levels.” AU countries will fail in this promise if they do not take measures to guarantee the right to education for girls who are pregnant, mothers or married, including by adopting human rights complaint policies that outline their rights and schools’ responsibilities to support them.  

To fulfil its human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch believes that Eritrea should take affirmative measures to guarantee that pregnant students can stay in school, and that students who are mothers may resume their education in public secondary schools after giving birth. An example of such measures would be to adopt a policy that affirms the right to education of pregnant students and adolescent mothers, and to expedite regulations that facilitate a return to primary and secondary school. Human rights-compliant policies adopted by governments should include provisions that stipulate that student who are pregnant or are mothers are allowed to remain in school for as long as they choose, are able to resume their education free from complex processes for withdrawal and re-entry, can complete their education in school environments free from stigma and discrimination, and receive adequate social and financial support.[8]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee asks the government of Eritrea:

  • What steps is the government taking to ensure girls who become pregnant or get married are not asked to leave, or are expelled, from school?
  • What steps is the government taking to ensure girls at risk of dropping out are socially and financially supported?
  • What steps is the government taking to tackle barriers that impede the retention of pregnant girls and adolescent mothers in school, including school fees and indirect costs?
  • What policy or regulatory measures will the government adopt to fully support pregnant students and adolescent parents to return and remain in school, and ensure school compliance with government policies?
  • What special accommodations are provided for young mothers at school, such as time for breast-feeding or flexibility when babies are ill?
  • What programs are in place to ensure access to nurseries or early childhood centers close to schools?
  • What school-based counselling programs are provided for pregnant girls and adolescent mothers?

Human Rights Watch encourages the Committee to make the following recommendations:

  • Adopt a human rights compliant policy that protects the right to primary and secondary education for pregnant girls and adolescent mothers; and monitor schools’ compliance with the policy.
  • Guarantee that students who are pregnant, mothers and/or married students are able to continue their education in public secondary schools after giving birth, without impediment or burdensome procedures, and ensure schools are free from stigma and discrimination;
  • Address financial, procedural, and systemic barriers that inhibit adolescent mothers from continuing their education.

Protection of Education During Armed Conflict (articles 11 and 22)

Attacks on Education Institutions, and Military Use of Schools

Eritrea’s armed forces have taken part alongside the Ethiopian government federal forces and other regional allies in the conflict that broke out in Ethiopia’s Tigray region in November 2020.

Warring parties in Tigray, including the Eritrean armed forces, have been implicated in the attacking, pillaging, and occupying of schools since the conflict started.

In one example, Eritrean troops looted food and materials reserved for students at Axum University after Eritrean forces massacred civilians in the town.[9] Eritrean refugees at Hitsats camp witnessed Eritrean forces loot offices and education facilities in November 2020.[10]

Throughout the conflict, all parties have used schools as military bases. Residents in Axum described the occupation of Basen primary school by Eritrean forces, who used it as a camp after Ethiopian and Eritrean forces took control of the town in November 2020.[11]

The Safe Schools Declaration is an inter-governmental political commitment that provides countries the opportunity to express political support for the protection of students, teachers, and schools during times of armed conflict; the importance of the continuation of education during armed conflict; and the implementation of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.[12] 

The Safe Schools Declaration has been endorsed by 113 states, including 33 African countries. The African Union Peace and Security Council has urged all African countries to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration. Eritrea is yet to endorse this important declaration.

Human Rights Watch encourages the Committee to make the following recommendations:

  • Endorse the Safe Schools Declaration and incorporate the declaration’s standards in domestic policy, military operational frameworks, and legislation.

[1] Human Rights Watch, “They Are Making Us Into Slaves, Not Educating Us,” How Indefinite Conscription Restricts Young People’s Rights, Access to Education in Eritrea, August 8 2019,

[2] Human Rights Watch, “Eritrea Busses Thousands of Students to Military Camp,” September 11, 2020,

[3] ACERWC “Concluding Recommendations by the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) on the State of Eritrea’s Report on the Status of Implementation of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child,” (accessed March 10, 2022), pp. 7-8.

[4] UNFPA “Eritrea Country Page,”

[5] UNESCO, “UNESCO Institute for Statistics: Eritrea” (accessed March 07, 2022).

[6] Dawit Teclemariam Bahta, “Girls’ Enrollment in Secondary Schools in Eritrea: Status and Hindering Factors,” 3 African Research Journal of Education and Social Sciences 1, 6‑7 (2016). 

[7] UNFPA, “International Conference on Population and Development: Programme of Action: 20th Anniversary Edition,” 2014 (accessed March 07, 2022).

[8] “Leave No Girl behind in Africa:  Discrimination in Education against Pregnant Girls and Adolescent Mothers,” Human Rights Watch, June  14, 2018, pp. 10-11.


[11] Ethiopia: Tigray Schools Occupied, Looted: Protect Students, Teachers in Region; Endorse Safe Schools Declaration, Human Rights Watch news release, May 28, 2021,

[12] Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, March 18, 2014, (accessed November 6, 2018).

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