A plea to protect schools in conflict zones

The sanctity of learning is being violated daily, writes Moza bint Nasser
The Financial Times, September 25, 2014

By Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser

In Tal Rifat on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Aleppo, children have no school to go to. Their building, twice hit by air strikes in recent weeks, lies in ruins. Students in nearby Azaz are no better off; there is a military base where their school used to be. Outside the country’s borders, in the overcrowded camps in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey, refugee children are lucky if they see a teacher.

Education has come under attack – not just in Syria but in every region of the world, from Afghanistan to Ivory Coast, Gaza to South Sudan. There are 28 million children living in conflict zones who receive no education at all and attacks on educational establishments are on the rise. Despite explicit prohibition by international law, the sanctity of learning is violated daily.

Thankfully, the global community is starting to take notice of this pernicious problem and address it.  

We must amplify the voices of the victims and deter the morally bankrupt with the real prospect of punishment. Education Above All, a non-governmental group I chair, has this week published ‘Protecting Education in Insecurity and Armed Conflict‘, a handbook that brings together existing international law on the protection of education in conflict zones. I hope that it will provide a powerful new tool to help investigators, lawyers and judges bring to justice those who violate the right of children to education.

At this week’s gathering of the UN General Assembly in New York, I will be joining Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and others to launch a new campaign: it will aim to put in school the 61 million children who receive no education, giving them high-quality teaching and a sense of citizenship that will help them forge just, peaceful, tolerant societies.

It is possible even in the most challenging circumstances of poverty and conflict to give children a meaningful education. In my work as a Unesco special envoy, I have witnessed the power of relatively simple interventions – such as the provision of scholarships to young people in Gaza to allow them to have a university education.

My UNESCO and UN mandates are global but there are lessons to be learnt from the advances made in my home neighbourhood in the Middle East. Thanks to increased funding from governments and the international community, primary school enrolment has increased by more than 10 per cent over the past decade, gender gaps have narrowed and more children are moving from primary to secondary school.

Yet in the Middle East alone, more than 6 million children still do not go to school and more than a quarter of adults are illiterate. We cannot forget that the way these young people navigate the coming years will largely determine the future of our region and our common prospects for peace and security globally.

Iraq is a case in point. Once a leader in education in the Arab world, it has suffered severely as a result of three decades of conflict. While literacy rates were high in the 1980s, almost a quarter of Iraqis are now illiterate, with rates even higher in some rural areas and among women.

Seeing the work in progress there, to boost both formal and non-formal education, train teachers and promote literacy, has convinced me that education is the key to helping the country heal its wounds.

We have so much to gain. We know that a child born to a mother who can read is 50 per cent more likely to live past the age of five. In developing countries each additional year of primary education can add at least 10 per cent to a child’s future earnings. Adults who have some financial security are more likely to invest in their children’s education.

This is why, despite the challenges we face, I have never felt as full of hope. Qatar will be playing its part. In November, Doha will host the fourth annual World Innovation Summit for Education. There, I will announce further practical steps to get those 61 million children into school.

Education gives us opportunity and influence. It also gives us a clear moral obligation to use those gifts to protect that right for others.

Sheikha Moza bint Nasser is UNESCO Special Envoy for Basic and Higher Education.