War Increasingly Spills Over Into Classrooms

UNITED NATIONS — The most pressing global challenge to children’s rights may be the increasing number of military attacks on schools in war zones, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Wednesday.

“It’s an issue that we now want to get more attention to internationally, so that we can sort of stigmatize the issue, and try and protect the schools and those who go to schools,” Bede Sheppard, a senior researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Children’s Rights Division, told IPS.

The report, “Schools and Armed Conflict: A Global Survey of Domestic Laws and State Practice Protecting Schools from Attack and Military Use,” details domestic regulations regarding education and conflict in 56 countries.

It examines three areas of legislation: protecting civilian objects (including buildings and infrastructure), protecting educational buildings, and preventing educational facilities from being used by armed groups — whether government security forces or non-state militias.

It also documents the long-run impact of such attacks on schools, such as imperiling the lives of students and staff, exposing students to physical and verbal abuse from troops, and causing psychological effects such as trauma, anxiety, and despondency.

“It’s much more than just a destroyed building,” Sheppard told IPS. “It’s also an attack on children’s right to education.”

Other impacts, according to Sheppard, include increased dropout rates, decreased chances of students graduating to higher grades, and frequent relocations to new sites that may be further away and less easily accessible.

“So that can have a real impact on the whole generation,” he said.

UNICEF’s Jordan Naidoo, a senior education adviser and head of the Education in Emergencies program, agreed.

“Education is supposed to be a means to bring people together to build community,” he told IPS. “But with the conflict going on, it can lead to disjunctures.”

The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF is partnering with Human Rights Watch to form a coalition called “Protecting Education From Attack” and, according to Naidoo, planning a round table on the subject to be held in the next year.

“Schools in many of these countries are the centre of the community,” Naidoo said. “So also that is a loss — not just to the children who attend, but to the entire community.”

The military use of and attacks on schools also have grave impacts on the education systems as a whole, Naidoo said, noting the economic costs of rebuilding facilities.

“Education … is foundational to many of the other development goals. So if education is disrupted through conflict, it has kind of dynamic, multiple effects over the long term,” he said. “It’s really damaging to the country at various levels,” he added.

As for the motivation behind such attacks, the experts do not want to generalize.

“There are different motivations for armed groups to attack schools in different conflicts,” explained Sheppard.

“It’s really important to do investigations as to what those reasons are, because you need to tailor your responses to addressing what’s causing those attacks,” he said.

He noted, for example, the ethnically Malay Muslims in Thailand who attack in defiance of the ethnically Thai Buddhist government. “They’re targeting the schools because they see the schools as a site of indoctrination by the government,” he said.

In India, Maoists simply find schools an easy target for attack —  usually unprotected at night and sure to bring in lots of publicity.

Naidoo offered another motivation. “In some instances … the schools represent stability,” he said. “They may be a part of the establishment, so they may be attacked for that reason.”

Nongovernmental organizations can play an important role in reversing the damage when conflicts disrupt education. They can act as interlocutors, negotiating with the armed factions, and provide emergency education to displaced children, according to Sheppard.

In that vein, UNICEF works on the ground both during and in the aftermath of armed conflicts.

“We recognize that education often provides a safe haven for children affected by conflict,” Naidoo explained. “Education provides relief from trauma and other … psycho-social effects that children have to face.”

The Education in Emergencies program also trains teachers to help students deal with the trauma of conflict and natural disasters.

The report notes that, often in situations of instability, schools become centers for life-saving information such as mine-awareness. Education also ensures the future development and security of a country, the report said.

“If we do not work directly with communities, with the government, and with schools, the disruption can continue even after the cessation of the armed conflict,” explained Naidoo.

Looking forward, the report recommends that all countries criminalize intentional attacks on educational facilities and that they consider enacting legislation to prohibit the use of schools as army bases.

It also recommends including school protection in military training materials and ensuring that all violators of international protections are appropriately disciplined or prosecuted.

“It’s also important that the government takes responsibility after an attack to rebuild that school quickly, to try to minimize the disruptions,” Sheppard added.

The good news, he said, is that some countries faced with serious conflicts have stepped up as leaders and implemented protections against the military use of schools.

“The fact that countries like the Philippines and Colombia have said that it’s okay and possible to fight wars without using schools by military forces — I think that’s a great message to other countries,” he said.

And, according to Naidoo, this kind of regulation is essential for a nation’s greater advancement. “Protecting children, schools, and personnel is really important because it is at a cost to the overall development of the country,” he said.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Portia Crowe

Portia Crowe writes for Inter Press Service.