Save the Children International, an organization that serves children and families, released a report last week stating that attacks on education are on the rise with nearly 50 million children out of school living in conflict-ridden countries around the world. The report was released on the eve of Malala Day, in which Pakistan schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai celebrated her 16th birthday by delivering an inspirational speech to the U.N. General Assembly.
In 2012, Yousafzai was targeted and gunned down as she went to school by the Taliban for being outspoken for girls’ education. Her tragedy galvanized global attention to the plight that many girls face.
Unfortunately, Save the Children’s report sheds light on the harsh reality that Yousafzai’s horrific experience is a widespread occurrence for children living in conflict-affected countries.
“This is an issue that many children around the world are being denied their right to learn and we want to shed light on how broad an issue this is. Many schools and education systems are really being attacked and we need to make sure that people are aware of this issue,” Heather Simpson, Senior Director for Education and Child Development at Save the Children International said to Voice of America’s reporter Frances Alonzo during a phone interview.
The report finds that in 2012, there were more than 3,600 documented attacks on education, including violence, torture, and intimidation against children and teachers. Some of these attacks resulted in death or serious injuries. Armed groups have been wreaking havoc on communities by shelling and bombing schools, destroying school materials such as books, desks, chalkboards, and recruiting school-aged children, according to the report.
Since the onset of the Syria conflict, 3,900 schools have been destroyed, damaged, or occupied for purposes other than education.
The report reveals that at the primary school level, there are close to 29 million children out of school living in conflict-affected countries and nearly 55 percent of those children are girls.
“Girls face challenges in conflict as well as outside of conflict. In many cases, girls are already at a disadvantage before conflict sets in; however, under conflict, girls and female teachers are especially vulnerable for things like gender based violence,” Simpson said.
In conflict-torn countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, the education of girls and women has been targeted by extremist groups in an effort to undermine their roles in society, explained Simpson.
However, in light of these difficult circumstances, fathers can play a significant role in combating militia groups and ensuring the education of their daughters.
“In many cases, fathers are the real champions for their daughters and when we’re working in communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we see the biggest long-term impact on girls’ education when we can get fathers really engaged on this issue and really see that investing in their girls’ education is an investment in their own families and…in their own future communities,” said Simpson.
Save the Children’s work with communities in Pakistan through home-centered book clubs and reading camps has contributed to considerable literacy gains. In a particular case, only one percent of girls at the beginning of the school year could read with comprehension, but through Save the Children’s support, that percentage jumped to one-third.
Simpson acknowledged that Save the Children’s work there, in part, hinged on support from the fathers and the communities of those girls.
“It (takes) commitment of those fathers and of those community members to really see their girls as an investment and as something that they’re willing to protect and willing to make sure they have those learning opportunities even when there (are) pressures from extremist groups,” Simpson told Alonzo.
Save the Children has played a hand in training teachers to be pillars of psycho-social support to their students. Teachers in conflict zones play a critical role in helping their students develop skills that will enable them to resist being drawn into conflict and recruited by guerilla groups.
“One of the most important things is to let children know they are not alone,” Simpson told Alonzo.
In Nepal, the government has intervened by deeming schools and school buses as “Zones of Peace,” free from attack by militia groups. School committees, PTAs, community members as well as students have built walls to protect their schools and drawn up a list of practices to help protect themselves and their school communities. Afghanistan and some countries in Africa have looked to Nepal’s successes and are establishing zones of peace for their schools.
Furthermore, Save the Children’s report finds that the high levels of children out of school and the sharp increase in attacks on schools have been exacerbated by shockingly low levels of funding for education in humanitarian emergencies. In 2011, funding for education fell from 2 percent of overall humanitarian funding to only 1.4 percent in 2012, which is well below the 4 percent that the global community has been calling for since 2010.
“Funding for education is low. In some ways, it’s the way donors are sector specific. In (others) ways, it’s the lack of spotlight on the issues, so Save the Children does a lot of humanitarian relief work and education, in our view, is a very critical piece to humanitarian relief,” Simpson said.
Through its report, Save the Children is calling on global leaders to confront this crisis by criminalizing attacks on centers for education, prohibiting the use of schools by militia groups, and increasing the levels of humanitarian funding to education to at least 4 percent of global funding.
Yousafzai’s story and Save the Children’s report are serving as catalysts, making clear that that the stakes for children’s learning in conflict-affected areas are critically high.
“Many conflicts last for ten years, so if a child does not have access to go to school, does not have access to learning opportunities for ten years, we lose that whole generation. But I think it requires us as a global community to really raise awareness on this,” Simpson said.