Education in Conflict Zones

In October 2012, Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai made headlines when she was shot by the Taliban on her way home from school in Northwest Pakistan’s Swat District. Malala had a passion for education. As a seventh grade student, she started writing anonymously for the BBC Blog Diary of a Pakistani schoolgirl, a resource that promoted educating girls. Shortly thereafter, she was the focus of a New York Times documentary on the subject. It was in response to these acts, that the Pakistani military felt the need to intervene. The assassination attempt failed and Malala’s recovery sparked an international conversation about educating children worldwide especially in times of conflict.

Civil and international conflict divides families, destroys homes, and disrupts the quality of healthcare. While education may not seem like an immediate need compared to food, shelter, and safety, it is central to development and can be rehabilitative to communities. According to the United Nations, 28.5 million children living in war zones cannot attend school. In times of conflict, children miss out on basic education when schools are damaged or closed in unsafe areas. Even after violence ends and the education system is reestablished, students struggle to make-up for lost time due to a shortage of qualified teachers. International law prohibits attacks on educational establishments, but schools are still being targeted. Examples are found across the Middle East and Africa including Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and the Ivory Coast.

Looking at the impact of Syria’s lengthy civil war on education, one in five schools is not functional. Thousands have been destroyed or repurposed as shelter for people fleeing the violence in other parts of the country. The only school building in Tal Rifat, for example, a city on the outskirts of Aleppo, was destroyed by airstrikes. In Azaz, a military base has taken the place of the only active school in the area. Despite the effort of community members in setting up provisional schools in homes and mosques, they are without trained teachers and sufficient supplies. Teenagers as young as 14 years old, who can no longer attend school, have begun volunteering as medical assistants; thereby exposing themselves to the frontlines of the war. For Syrian refugees who have fled to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, there is no access to teachers or education.

In Afghanistan, access to education is similarly grim. When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996, they made it illegal for girls to attend school. When combined with 30 years of continuous conflict, access to education, particularly for women, has been increasingly difficult. Threats from the Taliban are still present and there is a lack of both teachers and schools, especially in rural areas. In addition, only 28 percent of the country’s teachers are women. This poses a problem for Afghan girls whose education options are already limited. Culturally, having a male teacher decreases the likelihood that girls will be permitted to attend school. Many parents only allow their daughters to attend an all-girls school, while others are forced into marriage at a young age and do not continue their education.

The situation may seem grim as children across the globe continue to miss out on schooling, but organizations and individuals are working to raise awareness to reform this global issue. Listed below are just two of the many international efforts taking place.

  • One of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, achieving universal primary education, aims to make sure all children have access to primary schooling by 2015. Part of this effort is the Education for All Global Monitoring Report, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization publication that urges support for children in conflict zones.
  • The World Bank’s Education Resilience Approaches (ERA) Program helps countries understand how conflict affects their education systems and identifies existing resources to support local education.

Teachers in conflict zones are also standing up for education. In July 2013, over 400 educators working in Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo appealed to the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, to work toward greater support for education. They describe themselves as “teachers working with children whose lives continue to be profoundly affected by conflict…many of whom, like Malala, have taken enormous risks to simply attend school.”

Despite the push for change, only about two percent of humanitarian aid delivered to countries in conflict is spent on education, compounding the problems already faced by students and teachers. Going to school during times of violence can provide children with safety and stability amidst the chaos. In the long term, ignoring educational needs increases the risk that some children will never attend school, drop out, or that a region will lose the opportunity to educate an entire generation. 28.5 million is not a small number.

By: Ciara O’Connor, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh Intern