Special Feature

The plight of children living in front lines of conflict

By Akanimo Sampson

Fifteen year-old Sadiq from Sinjar district in northwest Iraq cannot write his own name. His education, like those of other children in the volatile North-East axis of Nigeria, has been successively destroyed by war, displacement, and now, COVID-19.

World has failed to protect children in conflict in 2018: UNICEF

According to the Deputy Director, Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, Bede Sheppard, ‘’Sadiq should be in 9th grade, but for three years, beginning in 2014, his hometown was ruled by the group known as Islamic State.

‘’The armed group not only prohibited formal secular education in areas they controlled, but also attacked schools and used them for military purposes, such as for bases or weapons storage, in contrast to Islamic law’s general emphasis on the importance of education.

‘’His family, who are Arab, fled Sinjar in 2017 and Sadiq then spent more than a year in a camp for internally displaced people. The camp had no education opportunities for him either.’’

Finally, in 2019, Sadiq and his family were able to return to their hometown, but it took three more months for the school there to assemble the teachers and materials to reopen.

It was not until December 2019 that Sadiq finally returned to school, having lost years of studies. He started doing well. But in less than three months, his school closed due to the rampaging COVID-19 pandemic.

Like schools in Nigeria, his school offers no distance education. So, Sadiq is at home doing very little. His father is busy running a store, and his mother is illiterate so cannot help much with his education.

Worried, the United Nations on Wednesday, September 9, marked its first International Day for the Protection of Education from Attack. That came amid the COVID-19 pandemic which has drove more than 1.5 billion students out of school earlier this year.

UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, says ‘’as the world fights to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, children and youth in conflict zones remain among the most vulnerable to its devastating impact. We must ensure our children have a safe and secure environment in which to learn the knowledge and skills they need for the future.”

The day was however, established by a unanimous decision of the UN General Assembly, calling on UNESCO and UNICEF to raise awareness of the plight of millions of children living in countries affected by conflict. The resolution proclaiming the Day was presented by the State of Qatar and co-sponsored by 62 countries. 

The General Assembly resolution affirms that governments have the primary responsibility to provide protection and ensure inclusive and equitable quality education at all levels to all learners, especially those in vulnerable situations.

It further emphasizes the need to intensify efforts and increase funding to promote safe and protective school environments in humanitarian emergencies by taking all feasible measures to protect schools, learners and educational personnel from attack, refrain from actions that impede children’s access to education, and facilitate access to education in situations of armed conflict.

UNESCO and UNICEF facilitate the annual observance of the Day in close collaboration with partners within and outside the UN system. Working on the frontlines in conflict-affected countries, the UN entities have long assisted member states in strengthening their capacity to provide access to quality educational opportunities for all in times of crisis.

Around the world, attacks on children continue unabated, as warring parties flout one of the most basic rules of war: the protection of children.

The protracted nature of conflicts today like that of Boko Haram in Nigeria, is affecting the futures of entire generations of children. Without access to education, a generation of children living in conflict will grow up without the skills they need to contribute to their countries and economies, exacerbating the already desperate situation for millions if not billions of children, and their families.

Interestingly, the UN has said that a child’s right to education cannot be safeguarded in conflict zones without education itself being protected. Education can be a life-saver. Out of school, children are easy targets of abuse, exploitation and recruitment by armed forces and groups.

School should provide a safe space where children can be protected from threats and crises. It is also a critical step to breaking the cycle of crisis and reduces the likelihood of future conflicts.

The Day drew attention to the plight of more than 75 million 3-to-18-year-olds living in 35 crisis-affected countries and to their urgent need of educational support.

It expressed concern over the effects of continued violence on these children and their ability to access education, whose consequences require special attention beyond the needs of learners whose establishments were temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In proclaiming the International Day to Protect Education from Attack celebrated for the first time in 2020, it appears the UN is sending a clear message regarding the importance of safeguarding schools as places of protection and safety for students and educators and the need to keep education at the top of the public agenda.

This remains a priority while governments continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic that has led to school closures for more than 90% of the world’s student population.

 ‘’We are moving from one crisis to another and the children are paying the price’’, Sadiq’s father told Human Rights Watch, a global rights group.

But children living in countries affected by armed conflict were already the most at risk of being excluded from education, even before the pandemic. Sadiq is one of them. In many current conflicts, education is not just collateral damage: teachers, students, and schools are intentionally targeted.

According to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack there were at least 11,000 reports of attacks on students, teachers, schools, or universities, or the military use of educational facilities globally between 2015 and 2019.

These incidents harmed over 22,000 students, teachers, and education personnel. Even as COVID-19 has stopped students and teachers from being able to meet in the classroom, it could not stop armed forces or armed groups from attacking schools.

Just as the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies the consequences on education systems that have been weakened by armed conflict, so too can armed forces exacerbate the consequences of COVID-19 on students’ education.

The rights group says in just one recent example, on June 14, atop vehicles mounted with machine guns, paramilitaries stormed a primary school for girls in Kadogli, the capital of Sudan’s Southern Kordofan state. The armed men, from Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces, dug a trench around the school, and began using it as a military training base.

The school was not in use. Like others around the world, it had closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the girls were temporarily sent home. However, the school was supposed to reopen for students to take secondary-school entrance exams. Instead, the paramilitaries would not let residents near the school, and the students were unable to return.

The use of schools or universities for military purposes – such as converting them into military bases, barracks, weapons storage, or, as in this case from Sudan, training bases – was reported in at least 33 countries between 2015 and 2019 according to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack. The use of schools for military purposes endangers students and teachers, as well as students’ education.

But, it does not have to be this way. Diverse legal and military examples from around the world illustrate that the military use of schools cannot only be minimised, but often avoided entirely. Many of these examples of good practice have emerged following the opening of the Safe Schools Declaration for States to endorse in 2015.

Once States have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, the ICRC can incorporate the declaration’s protections into its dialogues with relevant authorities. The organisation Geneva Call also engages with armed non-State actors, including on their Deed of Commitment for the Protection of Children’s pledge to avoid the use of schools for military purposes.

Indeed, in recent months ‘’we have seen new efforts to protect schools from military use. In July, the Syrian Democratic Forces issued an order to all commanders to ‘refrain from using schools for military purposes and from placing equipment or weapons near them, except in cases of extreme military necessity, when schools are exposed to aggression from other military parties and need protection’, and promptly vacated ten schools.

‘’And in August, Mali’s then-education minister wrote to the Defence Ministry to remind the armed forces of their commitments under the Safe Schools Declaration to avoid using any school currently vacant due to the COVID-19 pandemic for military purposes’’, the rights group says.

Such positive examples feel particularly valuable when the situation otherwise seems so grim. An international day to mark the protection of education from attack is especially needed now – if it leads to more constructive results.

The decision by Niger to use its presidency of the UN Security Council to issue a presidential statement tomorrow on the protection of education from attack – drafted together with Belgium, the chair of the Security Council’s Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict – in recognition of the new day, is a positive step. It should prompt the Security Council to consider the concrete measures it could advance in a dedicated resolution on the topic in the year to come. Possible measures include:

Addressing education not only through its ‘children and armed conflict’ agenda, but also taking up the issue of protecting higher education students, educators, and institutions through the Council’s ‘protection of civilians’ agenda.

Insisting that the UN Secretary-General lists all parties that attack students, teachers, and schools in his annual report to the Security Council on children and armed conflict based on the evidence, not political pressure or influence.

Demanding real accountability for threats, and attacks on students, teachers, schools, and other education institutions, despite some ‘salutary efforts’,  much remains to be done to recognise, prevent, and punish the spectrum of conflict-related crimes against or affecting children.

Advocating that regional peacekeepers adopt rules like those developed by the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, which ban their peacekeepers from using schools in their operations.

The African Union has played a meaningful role in pushing for the realization of the rights and protections of children in armed conflict, including by its Peace and Security Council repeatedly urging its members to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration. African Union peacekeepers should ban their troops from using schools.

Calling for the re-establishment of education facilities following attacks and ensuring the continuation of education during armed conflict, this approach can include programmatic responses with meaningful participation of affected communities.

For Human Rights Watch, asking the UN Secretary-General to report lessons learned and best practices on the protection of students, teachers, schools, and other education institutions during armed conflict, urging all member states to follow the example of the majority of UN members, and endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, and the establishment of an International Day for the Protection of Education from Attack was overdue.

‘’After all, protections for education from interference by the military date to at least 333 CE, explicit protections for students during times of war date back at least to 697 CE, and protections for schools from attack date at least to 1631. But ongoing attacks, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, means this historic occasion deserves more than just commemoration and celebration. It demands genuine action too’’, it adds.

Akanimo Sampson is a senior journalist/editor and President, Military Writers Society of Nigeria