SEATTLE — According to UNICEF, conflict zones around the world are preventing 25 million young students from getting access to education. Schools being targets for attacks, military use and occupation by armed forces has caused global concern surrounding protection of education under attack in conflict zones.
In 2010, The United Nations alongside multiple non-governmental organizations recognized the need for immediate action. As a solution to this problem, they created the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA). The agencies coming together acknowledged the need for implementation of policies and programs to protect students and teachers from deliberate attacks.
The multidisciplinary coalition, in hand with humanitarian law agencies, education in emergency groups, and child protection agencies, now focuses on advocacy among ministries and government bodies in conflict affected countries on how to reduce war crimes on schools and increase safety for future generations.
Diya Nijhowne, director of the GCPEA, addresses the phenomenon as a major global crisis—one that is only growing.
“Sadly, the problems of schools and universities being bombed and burned and students being raped, killed, executed, abducted from their schools is continuing,” Nijhowne said. “Generally, we have not seen it go down. And in some places, such as the middle east it is getting worse.”
Within a report titled Education Under Attack 2014 (based on data gathering for the period 2009-2013), armed nonstate groups, state military, security forces and criminal groups have attacked thousands of primary students, university students, teachers, academic institutions and education establishments in at least 70 countries worldwide.
In coordination with the United Nations, the state led Safe Schools Declaration headed by Norway and Argentina was created, a political commitment made by countries to better protect education during armed conflict. Within it are outlined steps, and procedures nations can implement to combat the issue of education under attack in conflict zones. Countries who have already endorsed the document are provided with support by the GCPEA in implementing the Declaration.
These terms include monitoring education under attack in conflict zones and collecting accurate data to respond to the issue, creating contingency planning for emergency situations and creating “conflict sensitive” learning environments that can continue education under warring times.
Currently, 68 or one-third of the members of The United Nations states have signed onto the Safe Schools Declaration and agree that this issue is of high importance. Endangerment to education within conflict zones is not only physically impacting communities, but taking a severe psychological toll on students and staff.
“If you are worried your school is going to be bombed or this phenomenon of military use of schools as well,” Nijhowne said. “Forces might be in the classroom next to the kids or on the play field, just having that sort of militarized atmosphere is very stressful.”
One commitment countries must make when signing the Safe School Declaration is to assist victims which includes psycho-social support for the people impacted.
“Schools are traditionally there to provide routine, they provide safety, they have a protection function, not only within society but within a war zone,” Nijhowne said. “If that place that is supposed to be a sanctuary becomes somewhere that might be attacked that diminishes what would have been a protective function that the school is offering.”
Anecdotal evidence taken from reports done by the GCPEA shows that women and girls are disproportionately affected by education under attack in conflict zones. If military forces are present on school grounds, parents are more likely to be protective of their daughters and refrain from sending them to school.Also, if there is limited opportunity for children to attend school, parents often choose their sons to go to school instead of their daughters.
Under international law, there is no prohibition against using schools for military purposes. However, with the growing number of schools and universities getting targeted by the military, ministries and other government agencies around the world have become increasingly willing to work on alternative approaches to avoid using schools as bases.
GCPEA continues to work on addressing war crimes against education under attack in conflict zones and furthering their advocacy in countries who have yet to sign the Safe Schools Declaration.
– Riley Bunch