Recognize the importance of education in conflict-stricken nations
Notable Swiss psychologist and expert in childhood development, Jean Piaget, once said, “Only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent or gradual.”
For upwards of 59.3 million primary school-aged students, education remains a denied basic human right, according to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. Only 10 percent of girls in the developing world will ever complete secondary school, according to the Peace Corps, due to factors such as gender-specific expectations. This leads to a significant gender gap in future job prospects and an ultimately inefficient society. During the Peace Corps’ Girls Leading our World camp, a teenage girl from Liberia expressed, “I didn’t know that I could write, that I could be an author, that I have a voice.”
We have all seen Malala Yousafzai advocate for the education of women, but what happens when education is lessened or targeted in times of conflict? Of the primary students not in school in the developing world, 36 percent are living in conflict zones, according to a 2015 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization report.
In fact, a March 23 Human Rights Watch report found evidence of armed militants using schools or nearby areas as bases; even soldiers in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic have utilized these spaces for military measures.
The conflict in the Central African Republic began in 2013 when Seleka, a Muslim-majority armed group, launched a coup against the government because they felt the government failed to abide by previous peace agreements. As a result, the Christian-majority Anti-balaka formed and reacted to the violence. The UN suspects both groups of atrocities amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. An estimated 3,000 to 6,000 people have been killed and 384,500 are internally displaced. In conflict, individuals not only have to survive, but also have to endure fundamental changes to their way of life.
In the same Human Rights Watch report, an 18-year-old-man from Ouaka prefecture shared the challenges he faced since Seleka militants occupied his school: “It is not normal for a child to lose this much time, it has blocked my future. I wanted to be a doctor, but that is impossible without school.” This man has been waiting four years for his high school education.
A school official conveyed a similar sentiment: “The [Anti-balaka] destroyed desks and chairs. We were able to get them to vacate one of the buildings so we could restart the school, but they still occupied half of the school and ruined the building … They used our school grounds as their toilet. They used the desks for firewood.”
However, this practice is not limited to the Central African Republic. According to a March 15 article in La Opinion, during the last decade in at least 28 countries, schools have been converted to serve military purposes. This extends well beyond attacks on schools that have been used by militant groups such as the Taliban and Boko Haram. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has made children targets of their attacks ― with things such as sexual abuse, torture and imprisonment, according to a Dec. 23, 2015 Al Jazeera article. When armed forces convert schools into military bases and utilize them as munitions storage, schools become a target for enemy forces. Who would send their child to school if, in doing so, it were as though they were sending their child onto the frontlines of a battle?
Education is vital to the growth and development of countries in conflict. For some of these, such as the Central African Republic, the largest percent of the population is under the age of 14. According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, 40.27 percent of the population is between the age of zero and 14 years old. These children should be in school because they will soon have to support their country. This cannot be accomplished without the right to education.
Advocacy groups around the world are attempting to alleviate the perils of conflict and lack of education by supporting programs during conflict. Students Organize for Syria, in partnership with STAND, The Student-Led Movement to End Mass Atrocities, created a program called Books Not Bombs. According to the website, the motivation is that “Syria needs a next generation of lawyers, architects, doctors and teachers and we can help with that. Your college can offer a scholarship to a Syrian student, enabling them to receive a safe and quality education.” Currently, 185 schools are considered participating universities, and while this program is geared toward college students, this is not the first attempt on the part of advocacy organizations to bring education to those in conflict zones. Between 2008 and 2014, the Enough Project’s Darfur Dream Team sister schools program provided primary school education to students in Djabal and Goz Amer refugee camps in Chad. As a result, 18,500 Darfuri refugees were educated in primary school.
However, the work of non-governmental organizations can only reach so far. Something more must be done. That is why it is important that there is global support for the 2015 Safe Schools Declaration; its purpose is to influence governments with a blueprint on how to better respond to attacks on schools and reduce the threat to schools.
While these armed groups may not intend to limit education, children should not be denied one of their most basic rights, as living in a conflict-zone is already challenging enough. In fact, the only chance a country in conflict has for survival is access to childhood education.