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Ethiopia’s Tigray War and its Devastating Impact on Tigrayan Children’s Education


The Ethiopia's Tigray war was an armed conflict that lasted from November 2020 to November 2022. The war was primarily fought in the Tigray region of Ethiopia between the Ethiopian federal government and Eritrea on one side, and the Tigrayan forces on the other. After years of increased tensions and hostilities between the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Ethiopian government declared war after accusing Tigrayan forces of attacking the Ethiopian defense force's northern command base. The war, initially limited to the Tigray region, was expanded to the neighboring regions of Afar and Amhara, affecting more than 20 million people, of which nearly three quarters were women and children, and 5.5 million have been forced to flee their homes and take refuge in other regions within Ethiopia.

The two years of bloody war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia have caused severe damage to essential social services there and in the neighboring regions of Afar and Amhara, including the education sector. The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) estimates that more than 2.8 million children have missed education in Afar, Amhara and Tigray in 2021. The war deprived Tigray's children of education, which is especially concerning as this follows the prolonged disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and many children still cannot return to school. For example, the AU's African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child calledon African countries to "either ban the use of schools for military purposes, or, at a minimum, enact concrete measures to deter the use of schools for military purposes." However, all warring parties used schools as military bases throughout the war.

Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) especially committed widespread abuses against civilians during its involvement in the war alongside the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) against Tigrayan forces. Both EDF and ENDF forces have bombed, looted, and occupied schools, sometimes using these sites to commit other crimes, including weaponized rape. Widespread and systematic Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) has been a main tool of the war. One Mekelle resident told Human Rights Watch, "I saw different women taken inside [a school]. Sometimes they would stay two, three, or five days, and we would see them go in and out of the school. They appeared beaten and were crying as they would leave… No one could ask the women what happened to them, and the atmosphere made it difficult to do so."

These actions are in discord with national and international law and declarations. Under Ethiopia's criminal code, "the confiscation, destruction, removal, rendering useless or appropriation of property such as […] schools" is a war crime. Furthermore, the African Union Peace and Security Council has urged all African countries to endorse the SafeSchools Declaration an international political commitment currently supported by countries — to take concrete measures to better protect schools, including by refraining from using schools for military purposes. As of March 2023, Ethiopia has not endorsed the declaration.

Studying the Impact

According to a study on the damage to Tigray's education sector, the war has reversed years of progress. In 2021, the Tigray education bureau conducted a preliminary assessment that included 2,054 primary, elementary, and secondary public schools and two teachers' training colleges, excluding schools in Western and parts of Northern Tigray that Eritrea and Amhara occupied. The study's findings indicate that 88.3% of classrooms were severely damaged. This damage included the theft, tear down, and burning of 96.5% of student desks, 95.9% of blackboards, 63.5% of student textbooks as well as the vandalism or destruction of 85.1% of computers, 79.9% of plasma screens, 84.5% of science laboratory equipment, 92.5% of educational models, and more than 48% of toilets.

The study also revealed that primary school students in Tigray now walk an average of 7.3 kilometers to school, up from 2.5 kilometers just two years ago due to damage to the school. Similarly, high school students will have to walk an average of 17 kilometers to their schools, up from 7 kilometers before November 2020. Class-to-student ratios have also risen from 39:1 pre-war to 434:1 in primary schools and 43:1 pre-war to 365:1 in high schools. During the study, the education bureau also identified 1,911 students and 235 teachers (elementary and secondary schools) who were killed during the war. Because the study only covered the period from November 2020 to September 2021, the true tally of atrocities could greatly outnumber the reported figures.

Moving Forward Post-War

After the brutal war, the TPLF and the Ethiopian government signed a deal on a permanent cessation of hostilities on November 2, 2022. Positive steps have since been taken in its implementation. However, the non-Ethiopian National Defense Force parties have not yet withdrawn from constitutionally recognized territories of Tigray to their pre-November 3, 2020 lines of deployment. There has thus been a failure to enact restoration of pre-war territorial and administrative status quo ante and to return internally displaced persons to their homes from the schools currently housing them. Now, six months after the peace deal, the Eritrean forces are also still in Tigray. The issue of justice and accountability seem also to be delayed or left unaddressed. True peace can only be achieved if the atrocities in Ethiopia do not enjoy impunity and survivors are given a voice. All sides have to respect the agreement and follow through on pledges "to implement an inclusive and comprehensive transitional justice process".

The war in Tigray has taken a terrible toll on education in the region, which may affect the lives of Tigray's future generations. Therefore, the warring parties should take swift and appropriate measures to fully implement the peace deal and return Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and refugees, thereby fostering durable peace. Despite positive trends, including forming an Interim Regional Administration (IRA) and removing the TPLF from the designated terrorist list, the non-ENDF parties should withdraw quickly from Western Tigray (Wolkait) and Southern Tigray (Raya zone) which is not implemented as per the peace deal yet. The Eritrean troops should also withdraw from Tigray territory.

The Tigray education bureau is collaborating with non-governmental and humanitarian organizations to facilitate IDPs return to their areas, teacher reimbursements, and textbook purchases, all of which are major roadblocks to resuming education, on top of the urgent need to restore destroyed school infrastructures. Further complicating the problem, the majority of the IDPs housed in the schools compound have been displaced from Western and Southern parts of Tigray that are still under the occupation of non-ENDF parties. For the IDPs to be able to return to their homes, the issue of disputed areas (Wolkait and Raya zones) must be resolved.

UNICEF Ethiopia stated in February 2023 that it is providing informal education services to countless children who were deprived of school due to COVID-19 and the conflict in northern Ethiopia, as well as facilitating the gradual return of students to school until classes resume. The United Nations said accelerated learning activities are required for children who have been out of school for more than three years in war torn areas. The Ethiopian News Agency reported that the federal government working to resume formal schooling in the area and that the Ministry of Education has commenced preliminary preparation to resume education after studying the extent of damage and identifying the issues needed to start education. Rebuilding these damaged facilities in the region should be a priority. The government in collaboration with the United Nations, aid agencies, and international partners should also take quick steps to ensure that once rebuilt, schools and universities can reopen safely.

Photo Credit: Chew Ber Primary School was badly damaged by conflict in North Gondar, Amhara Region, Ethiopia. © UNICEF Ethiopia/2023/Waterton via Flickr (License)

The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center's Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States.


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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more