There are few places that can be as vibrant as a school, as creative and colourful or as full of energy and youthful enthusiasm. For children growing up in conflict zones, schools should be places in which they can seek refuge from the violence of daily life. The reality, unfortunately, could not be more different.
Violent conflicts persist relentlessly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Palestine, Nigeria, Yemen and other war-torn countries. Attacks on students, teachers, schools and universities have become part and parcel of protracted conflicts, and the long-term effects on education cannot be ignored any longer.
Where we fail to protect children in education from conflict, we pass an unthinkable decision onto their parents. In effect, we ask them to decide whether to send their children to school and give them the transformative gift of education, even when there is a risk of them being caught up in violence, being sexually assaulted or never coming home at all. No parent should be asked to make such a decision.
A report published last month by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), Education Under Attack, reveals that there have been 2,700 attacks on education between 2013-2017, harming more than 21,000 students and educators.
We know that children who are displaced by war are amongst the most vulnerable. Today, on World Refugee Day, we must ensure as a matter of urgency that the right to education for the world’s most marginalised children, including refugees, is safeguarded in international law. The Global Compact on Refugees, currently being negotiated by the international community, must recognise the fundamental right to education as one that enables the enjoyment of multiple other rights.
Education is a powerful weapon against poverty, radicalisation and conflict. This means that when the weapons of war turn towards education with their destructive power, lamentable cycles of violence are doomed to persist.
Violent attacks increase student drop-out rates and school closures; access to education is curtailed and student retention is made even more difficult. According to Education Under Attack, conflict in Syria, for example, has destroyed the national education system and three million children had already stopped attending school on a regular basis by 2015; three years later, that number is bound to be significantly higher.
Because existing social vulnerabilities and patterns of exclusion are only intensified by conflict, it’s the most vulnerable children who miss out on education first.
Female students suffer intensely in conflict settings, and are often the target of sexual assault by armed groups when they are at school or on the way to school. Girls and women were targets of attacks on education because of their gender in at least 18 of the 28 countries profiled in the report. Furthermore, in Syria families were found to be taking their daughters out of school early to get married, in the hope that doing so would protect them from sexual violence.
Globally, there is consensus on the urgent need to educate girls, and yet too often in crisis or conflict settings girls are missing out on education due to the fear of being assaulted or attacked. In light of the recent G7 summit, the British government has committed to £187 million in funding to ensure that 400,000 girls in developing countries have 12 years of quality education. This is an important and welcome intervention, and every government should be encouraged to do the same.
One founding member of the GCPEA, Protect Education in Insecurity and Conflict (PEIC), is a programme of the Education Above All Foundation. It recognises that safeguarding quality education is the foundation for improving people’s lives. That is why it works to shine a light on these attacks and calls on the international community to hold perpetrators to account.
We know that education is the most powerful tool to transform livelihoods, not just for individuals and their families but also for entire communities and nations. The violent destruction and military targeting of schools produces intense physical and psychological suffering while being a major impediment to wider social development as we strive towards the Global Goals for Sustainable Development agreed by world leaders in 2015.
The protection of vulnerable children remains not only a fundamental rule of war, but also a fundamental rule of humanity. There can be no more damning indictment of our failure as an international community than when children are being injured, abducted, raped and killed in educational establishments.
We must amplify our calls to protect the right to education for refugees, and to ensure that the transformative power of education is available to all. On World Refugee Day, schools are still under attack. This must stop.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.