UNICEF: In Niger, children are forced to drop out of school to support their families

By Laura Huyghe [UNICEF]

NIAMEY, Niger, 20 April 2012 – Only a few months ago, 12-year-old Oumar Soumana was happily living with his family in Damana, in south-western Niger. But when the village’s food stocks were depleted – a result of the massive food crisis occurring throughout the Sahel region of Africa – he was forced to leave home and travel to the capital in search of work.

On a recent, sweltering day, Oumar walked down the dusty streets of Niamey carrying a cooler on his shoulder. Inside were ‘appolo’, small plastic bags filled with iced fruit juices, which he sells for a few CFA francs each.

“It is a painful job for me,” he said. “I spend the whole day walking. I do not really rest because I have to sell and bring the money back, otherwise my salary will be reduced, so I prefer to do the maximum.”

Oumar’s boss is a civil servant who makes fruit juices to supplement her income.

“She pays me 10,000 [CFA francs, or US$20] at the end of the month,” he said. “She is the one who ensures that I will have my breakfast, my lunch and my dinner.”

Crisis forces children to work

Niger is among the countries worst affected by the Sahel food crisis, a disaster caused by drought, failed harvests and rising food prices. According to the NGO CARE, more than half of the villages in Niger are identified as vulnerable to food insecurity.

It is a children’s crisis. Over one million children under age 5 in the Sahel region are threatened by severe acute malnutrition, a deadly condition. And many older children have been forced to leave their schools and homes to earn money.

When Damana’s food stocks were almost empty, Oumar and other boys his age left to find work in the capital. There, Oumar was reunited with his two older sisters, who had previously left the village for the same reason. They are now employed as domestic workers.

Oumar and his sisters live together in a makeshift tent in an improvised camp where displaced families have gathered. The camp has no running water or sanitation. The money they earn is sent to their parents in Damana so “they can eat,” Oumar said. They keep only a small amount of money to sustain themselves.

‘I would rather go to school’

Back in his village, Oumar had been enrolled in school, and dreamed of becoming a teacher. “Through education, it is possible to find a good job and to have a better life,” he said.

He knows what he has lost by dropping out and leaving home.

“Here I have to look for food myself, with the risks that I face outside. Some people do not pay and run away, some people threaten me, some people insult me,” Oumar said. “For me, this is not a nice life, and I wish I was in the village with my parents.”

When the rainy season finally arrives, in June, Oumar hopes to go home and work with his father in the fields. “It will be better than selling in the streets and everything. I am suffering here,” he said.