CONTRARY to popular belief, classrooms, kids and education systems are not merely ‘collateral damage’ in the case of conflicts. They are more and more deliberately considered legitimate targets. Schoolchildren are the silent victims of attacks on schools, forced recruitment into armed militias and an epidemic of rape and sexual violence.
Armed conflicts do not destroy just schools. They destroy opportunities for generations of children. Yet this issue remains widely neglected. Unesco’s 2011 Education for All Global Monitoring Report throws the spotlight on this hidden crisis.
In 2009, there were more than 600 attacks on educational institutes in Afghanistan alone. Damage to schools and security fears have resulted in the closure of more than 70 per cent of schools in Helmand and more than 80 per cent in Zabul — provinces with some of the world’s lowest levels of attendance.
The facts are alarming.
Forty-two per cent of the world’s total number of primary-school-age children who are not enrolled in school live in conflict-affected countries (35 countries from 1999 to 2008, 15 of them in sub-Saharan Africa). All of this entrenches the vicious circle of war. Children lacking an education face a future blighted by poverty — and poverty is a very persuasive recruitment sergeant for armed groups. Low education attainment is one of the few statistically significant predictors of violence.
This is an immediate human rights crisis. It is also a long-term development disaster. Countries affected by armed conflicts feature the deepest gender inequalities and lowest literacy levels in the world, along with some of the highest child death rates.
What is more, education is often the first budget line cut by governments facing conflict. Armed conflicts in the world’s poorest countries are one of the greatest barriers facing the Education for All goals. Twenty-one developing countries currently spend more on arms than on primary schools, with no evidence of a global improvement in security. Cutting these military expenditures by 10 per cent would put 9.5 million additional children in school.
According to the report, Pakistan, with one of the world’s largest out-of-school populations (7.3 million in 2008), spends over seven times as much on arms as on primary schools.
Of course, every country has to ensure its security, but military spending is a significant drain on public expenses.
The international community must pull its weight more. Communities affected by conflict are making heroic efforts to defend education, but the same cannot be said of aid donors. Education accounts for two per cent of humanitarian aid. No sector has a smaller share of humanitarian appeals actually funded. And it would take just six days of military spending by rich countries to close the $16bn basic Education for All financing gap.
To address this crisis, we must act at three levels.
Our immediate priority must be to stop the appalling violations of human rights. Governments must bring those responsible to account and not allow attacks on children, systematic rape or the destruction of school facilities to go unpunished. The UN must do it part — to monitor, report and investigate egregious violations of human rights. Unesco should be mandated and resourced to develop a robust reporting system. The Hague Convention protects cultural heritage in the event of armed conflicts. Would it be so difficult to extend it to school facilities?
Second, we need to invest more in education as a core part of both humanitarian and development assistance. Education cannot remain the poor cousin of international efforts. It is the best way to protect the green shoots of peace after a conflict. It is often the first real peace dividend for girls and boys, for communities struggling to get back on their feet.
Finally, education must rise on the agenda of peace-building. We know the wrong type of education can fuel conflict.
We need to ensure that education systems provide youth with the skills and civic values they need to escape poverty, unemployment and the economic despair that often contributes to violent conflict. Education is indeed on the frontline of our global security.
The writer is director-general of Unesco.