An estimated one million children have been forced out of school as a result of violent attacks by Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria and its neighbouring countries, a new UNICEF report said on Tuesday.
The ongoing violence has led to the closure of more than 2,000 schools in Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon, the agency said. Hundreds of others have been attacked, looted or burned by Boko Haram, whose name roughly translates to "Western education is forbidden".
"The conflict has been a huge blow for education in the region, and violence has kept many children out of the classroom for more than a year, putting them at risk of dropping out of school altogether," said Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF's West and Central Africa regional director.
Fontaine said the "staggering" figure of one million children out of school increased the risks of them being "abused, abducted and recruited by armed groups".
'We are afraid'
Children have been particularly targeted by Boko Haram and have often been the victims of sexual abuse, forced marriage, abductions and brutal killings. Terrified and traumatised, many families are keeping their children away from classes.
"A lot of parents in the northeast would not send their children to school because they'd be afraid of what would happen," Hafsat Maina Muhammed, executive director of the Choice for Peace Gender and Development NGO in Damaturu, told Al Jazzera.
"My children were at home for about two years - they didn't go to school because we were afraid that when they'd go to school there'd be attacks and bombs. There were times that my kids would be missing [school] for two days because there was a bomb somewhere."
Muhammed, who has worked for years at the grassroots with children - especially those affected by Boko Haram - countering violence through education and peace building, knows first-hand the challenges faced by many children in Nigeria's northeastern states.
"They are telling me, 'we want to go to school but we are afraid and there's nobody to support us'.
"It breaks my heart because I know that these children are intelligent, artistic, strong and healthy. They deserve to have education to be better people in the future. Even at the age of eight, these children know they are not being given the avenue to go and pursue their education and become who they want to become."
Lack of trust
Overall, some 10.5 million children are out of school in Nigeria - Africa's most populous nation - with 9.5 million from the northern part of the country, according to professor Kyari Mohammed from the Modibbo Adama University of Technology in Yola.
"Nigeria ranks second only to Pakistan in the number of children out of school," he told Al Jazeera.
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