Going to school should not expose children to deadly violence, abduction by soldiers and/or insurgent groups, or sexual violence at the hands of combatants. But for many schoolchildren around the world, simply attending classes is a living nightmare and a test of courage.
According to a new study published by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), schools, teachers, children and the right to education continued to be violently attacked in 2017. The study, entitled Education under Attack 2018, paints a troubling picture of the state of education in the world's many hotspots, failed states and conflict zones.
The report is the fourth instalment in an ongoing series. According to GCPEA, "the report, which tracks attacks on education and the military use of schools and universities across the globe, shows that between 2013 and 2017, attacks on education and military use of schools and universities killed or injured thousands of students and educators and damaged or destroyed hundreds of schools and higher education facilities."
The GCPEA was established in 2010 by a coalition of many humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including Save the Children and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
During the reporting period of 2017, "there were reports of more than 1,000 individual attacks on education or cases of military use of schools or universities, or of 1,000 or more students, teachers or other education personnel being harmed, in nine countries: Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt, Israel/Palestine, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Sudan, Syria, Turkey and Yemen."
According to Education under Attack 2018, the evidence "suggests that violence directed at students, educators and their institutions increased worldwide between January 2013 and December 2017 from the 2009-to-mid-2013 period covered in Education under Attack 2014."
Safe Schools Declaration
Last year, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres encouraged all UN member states to sign the Safe Schools Declaration, which asserts that the right to education must be protected during times of armed conflict. Canada formally endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration on Feb. 21, 2017. The declaration arose from the Oslo Conference on Safe Schools, which was hosted by Oslo, Norway, on May 28, 2015. As of last month, 74 member-states of the United Nations have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration.
Why is it important for schools to be safe places for children living in conflict zones? "For a child, access to a safe space to learn offers a sense of normalcy, routine and calm amid the chaos of war," Bill Chambers, president and CEO of Save the Children Canada, replied in an email.
Conversely, he said that "disruptions in education can reduce the likelihood of children returning to school, even when they're open and in the long term, it can affect individual earnings and a country's ability to rebuild" during peacetime.
"Safe schools provide life-saving information, mitigate the psychosocial impact of war, and can protect children from trafficking, sexual violence and recruitment by armed groups," Chambers added.
State of education in conflict zones
What, in general, is the state of education in conflict zones?
"What we are seeing is that things are getting worse," David Morley, head of UNICEF Canada, replied in a telephone interview. "We are seeing an increase in attacks on schools, in schools being taken over by militaries, in children being used as human shields, killed, raped or recruited."
Morley stressed that attacks on schools and schoolchildren are violations of international humanitarian law.
Attacks on schools are "robbing" children of their education, Morley said, because parents are afraid to send their children to school and children are often afraid to attend school for fear of violence. And this will have long-term implications for society.
"Without health and education, how can a society be able to progress once the violence ends?" the UNICEF Canada boss asked rhetorically.
What kind of danger do schoolchildren face in conflict zones?
Schools are deliberately attacked, "in order to terrorize communities," Morley explained. And as children go to and from school, they are "kidnapped to become fighters in an armed group" and/or "subjected to sexual violence."
Children who survive captivity tell "horrific stories of being raped" and forced to become child soldiers, which Morley describes as "life-destroying and soul-destroying" experiences for the children.
What does conflict mean for the future of children in the affected societies?
"The quality of education is diminished or destroyed," Morley answered. "Children don't know how to read and write. If peace comes, how are they going to get good jobs?"
Morley's analysis is backed up by the findings of GCPEA. The report found that "attacks on education and military use of schools and universities limit access to educational opportunities, diminish the quality of education, and obstruct social progress and development."
"If a young person does not possess basic skills, fighting, gun-running, drug-running -- it all becomes more attractive," Morley added.
The negative impact of violence on education is a double-edged sword, he continued. "It can perpetuate fighting, but in peace time it reduces the chance that peace will hold. We know that education is a foundational block for peace."
"It is clear that attacks on schools and the use of schools for military purposes have both significant short- and long-term consequences for children," Bill Chambers declared. For example, some children are killed in attacks, others are wounded and/or suffer psychological harm, he said.
In addition, Chambers warned that "girls and boys who are out of school are at increased risk of sexual and other forms of exploitation, recruitment as child labourers or child soldiers and early marriage." And he stressed that "Save the Children is particularly concerned at the impact of these attacks on girls, with our research demonstrating that girls are often targets of attack purely because of their gender."
What impact does this have on the child's development, health, emotional/mental well-being and life prospects?
"The impact of violence on a child's development, overall health, emotional and mental well-being and life prospects are significant," Chambers answered.
"Girls especially can be disproportionately affected by conflict when their right to education is opposed; they can be targeted for sexual violence while at or en route to school; or their families withdraw them for security reasons. This has a devastating effect on their development and their life prospects."
The impact of conflict on children can last a lifetime.
"Children do not always fully recover from lost educational opportunities," the Save the Children boss said. "Gains in education access and quality are reversed, which can lead to a higher incidence of early, child and forced marriage, larger families and continued cycles of abject poverty," he said of the impact of war and conflict on childhood development.
Moreover, Chambers said that "the quality and relevance of higher education are diminished and research and innovation are curtailed" in societies torn apart by conflict. "Recurring investment in education is stopped due to ongoing targeting of infrastructure."
According to Chambers, "weakened education affects a country's development as a whole, including economic, political and social development, poverty reduction, and maternal and child health."
What must be done?
According to Education under Attack 2018, there were attacks on education in 74 countries last year. And this raises a troubling question: is the world witnessing the creation of a lost generation of children?
If millions of children around the world are robbed of a basic quality education, humanity will continue to be plagued by poverty, anger, hatred, violence and endless conflict.
What must be done to address attacks on schools and protect the right of all children to a quality education?
"Politicians have to find ways of bringing peace," UNICEF's David Morley replied bluntly. "Long-term solutions to any of this stuff require a political solution.
"There's no humanitarian solution to a humanitarian crisis, there's only a political solution. There has to be political will for parties in a conflict to stop fighting."
Follow Geoffrey P. Johnston on Twitter @GeofffyPJohnston.
The Kingston Whig-Standard 2018 ©
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