When Schools Become Targets of War

Students and teachers are being killed, injured, and extorted, not merely as casualties of war, but precisely because of their connection to education.
Diya Nijhowne

When ideological rifts turn violent, education can become a primary target. The case of Malala Yousafzai demonstrated to the world how horrific these attacks can be.

Malala, the Pakistani student who was attacked in 2012 when she dared to speak out against the Taliban, survived and became a symbol for the right to education. But there are hundreds more incidents like this every year worldwide.

The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack has released a study identifying 70 countries where attacks occurred between 2009 and 2013, including 30 in which there was a pattern of deliberate attacks.

“Around the world, schools are being bombed, burned, and used for military purposes, and students and teachers are being killed, injured, and extorted, not merely as casualties of war, but precisely because of their connection to education,” Diya Nijhowne, director of the Global Coalition, told me. “Schools, student, and teachers are targeted as a tactic of war, and states and armed groups need to take action to stop this appalling practice.”

Education Under Attack 2014 is the most thorough examination of attacks on education to date. Its researchers found that, over the past five years, armed nonstate groups, state military and security forces, and armed criminal groups have attacked thousands of schoolchildren, university students, teachers, academics, and education establishments worldwide.

The attacks occur in far more countries and more extensively than previously documented. It is not known if this is due to an increase in attacks, or better monitoring, reporting, and research.

Attacks involve bombing or burning schools, or killing, injuring, or kidnapping students and staff. In Nigeria, for example, from January to September 2013, some 30 teachers were reportedly shot dead, sometimes during class. In an effort to impose a strict form of Sharia in northern Nigeria, Boko Haram (whose name means “Western education is a sin” in Hausa) partially destroyed or burned down 50 schools in the first seven months of 2013.

In Pakistan, one of the most heavily affected countries, armed groups have attacked 838 schools, mostly by blowing up school buildings. Dozens of students and teachers were killed, and hundreds were injured or kidnapped.

Schools, students, and staff are attacked for a variety of reasons, including the following:

  • to destroy symbols of government control;
  • to block the education of girls or education perceived to teach foreign religious or cultural values;
  • to restrict teacher trade union activity;
  • to abduct children for use as combatants or sex slaves, or for ransom;
  • to use schools and universities as barracks, bases, or firing positions.

Persistent attacks on schools means that thousands of children are missing out on the right to education. The effects on student attainment and access to quality education can be devastating.

In countries where attacks have persisted on a significant scale, lengthy school closures have meant that hundreds of thousands of children have been denied access to education, sometimes for years. Where schools are damaged or destroyed, the government often lacks the capacity or will to rebuild them in time to resume classes.

In higher education, attacks endanger lives and disrupt education as well as impact research and teaching by triggering fear, flight, and self-censorship. Broader and longer term consequences include restricting economic development and hindering political plurality, accountable government, and open society.  

The report makes a number of recommendations, including the following:

  • investigate and prosecute through regional and international tribunals;
  • end the use of schools and teachers for electoral tasks in conflict areas;
  • adopt conflict-sensitive curricula to address perceptions of bias and ensure education does not become target for attack;
  • negotiate with parties to a conflict to respect schools as safe zones.

The Global Coalition also calls for the widespread adoption of the Lucens Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use During Armed Conflict, which draws on international human rights and humanitarian law to preserve education as a safe zone in armed conflicts.

2 Comments

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Many thanks to the open society on protecting schools and learning centers. I write from Kenya as a representative and coordinator for Human rights schools club network, clubs that teach, practice and promote rights for students. we request for your partnership and advice from open society to forge our way forward.Thank you.

Education is the first thing to be attacked by the ignorant. It is scary to watch how much the U.S. cuts education so much. Without fair, impartial, free education, our species will never make it beyond Earth and is doomed to fail.

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