Updated: Feb 6, 2021
by Sheba George
Thirty years ago, world leaders came together to adopt what would become the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history: ‘the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child’. And yet, thirty years later, the world has failed to protect its most vulnerable children.
Illustration by Lina Osorio
"Our young souls demand calm without blame, without weapons, without blade, or flame. Henceforth, this is the path we wish to take, Leaving guns behind, book and pen we will take”.
–’Poems for peace’ by children living under conflict, UNICEF
Around the world, the growth of crises and humanitarian emergencies has increased the number of children living in areas of ‘conflict’ - a term used to describe regions characterised by fragility, instability, or violence. In 2018, one in six children (around 415 million) were estimated to be affected by conflict, and by 2030, this figure is predicted to grow to one-third of the world’s children (around 1.3 billion). Due to the increasingly protracted nature of most conflicts, generations of children are robbed off their childhoods. Under such circumstances, losing the right to education further exacerbates a gravely precarious humanitarian situation and imperils the future of both individuals and entire societies. Therefore, urgent global efforts directed at protecting education in conflict contexts are required to safeguard the future of millions of children.
Recognising the growing threat to education due to conflict
Children living under conflict are disproportionately subject to extreme human rights violations that adversely affect their entire life trajectories. In 2019, UNICEF recorded more than 170,000 grave violations against children and a staggering threefold increase in verified attacks since 2010. These atrocities included abductions, sexual abuse, forced recruitment into armed groups, denial of access to humanitarian relief, killings, and attacks against schools and hospitals. Of these violations, the attack on schools and the associated denial of education is regarded as a violation of both international humanitarian law and international criminal law, owing in part to the long-term ramifications that education deprivation has on children and society at large.
In spite of being enshrined as a fundamental human right, education has come under attack more than 140,000 times in the past five years alone. Around the world, educational institutions and students are targeted by belligerent groups as a tactic to amass political leverage or assert socio-ideological dominance. Between 2013 and 2017, 24 countries reported at least one instance of illegal conversions of educational institutions into military facilities or detention centres, 17 countries documented forced recruitment and reported-incidents of sexual abuse against students, and more than 18 countries recorded ideologically-motivated attacks against female-only schools. The weaponisation of education during a conflict situation fuels widespread fear, stigmatisation, and abandonment of education - which is why education needs to be protected in such conflict situations.
Protecting education to safeguard children and societies
Sustaining education under conflict can assist in the immediate protection of children and contribute towards the long-term resolution of societal crises. Education provides life-saving health and security information that enables children to survive beyond the immediacy of conflict. The routine and sense of normalcy associated with pursuing education can lessen the psychosocial impact of trauma or displacement. Moreover, education can also provide social protection to “at-risk” groups of children by mitigating their susceptibility to external security threats such as radicalisation or recruitment into militia forces.
For countries undergoing conflict, investments into equitable and inclusive education can promote communal resilience and encourage peace-building efforts. Education can equip children with skills that support post-conflict economic regeneration and employability. Overall, education is key to enabling children living under conflict to constructively adapt their responses for surviving the immediate and long-term implications of conflicts.
Unfortunately, although education is of paramount importance, it does not receive sufficient social protection to be sustained in conflict contexts.
Sustaining education through political commitments and funding
During political crises, funding to the education sector is among the first to be discontinued and among the last to be reinstated. The sector also endures massive cuts in government spending during non-political emergencies such as natural disasters or disease outbreaks. Education, particularly in regions of conflict, is one of the most underfunded areas of humanitarian aid. In 2019, it received only 2.6% of humanitarian funding, well below the targeted 4%. Overall, the annual funding gap for education in emergencies is estimated at US$8.5 billion, which if unmet, could risk the future of 75 million children.
Although education in conflict contexts has garnered international political attention in the past few years, the sector remains largely underfunded and neglected. There is a dire need for urgent global response towards protecting and sustaining education in conflict regions, which begins with recognising education as a vital service during conflict and prioritising it as an essential component of humanitarian response measures. Once prioritised, sustaining education in conflict contexts requires global political commitment and resource coordination, backed up by sufficient development assistance funding. The creation of the first global fund dedicated to education in crises in 2016 and the inclusion of equitable education under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are certainly strides in the right direction of progress...
...but with more than 1.3 billion children waiting, can the world really afford to delay protecting education?
Sheba George is a Development Policy Consultant
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