Africa: #BringBackOurGirls and protect all Nigeria’s schoolchildren

All Africa, May 6, 2014

By Gordon Brown

Abuja — The kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls in northern Nigeria is beyond outrageous. Sadly, it is just the latest battle in a savage war waged against the fundamental right of all children to an education. That war is global, as similarly horrifying incidents in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia attest.

Around the world, there have been almost 10,000 violent attacks on schools and universities in the past four years, according to a report from the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack. The evidence is as ample as it is harrowing, from the 29 schoolboys killed by suspected Boko Haram militants in the Nigerian state of Yobe earlier this year, to Somalian schoolchildren forced to become child soldiers, to Muslim boys attacked by nationalists in Burma and schoolgirls in Afghanistan and Pakistan who have been firebombed, shot or poisoned by the Taliban for daring to seek an education.

These are not isolated examples of children caught in the crossfire; this is what happens when classrooms become battlegrounds. In at least 30 countries, this is down to a concerted pattern of attacks by armed groups, with Afghanistan, Colombia, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Syria the worst affected.

Such attacks reveal with stark clarity that providing education is not only about blackboards, books and curricula. Schools across the globe, from North America to northern Nigeria, now need security plans to ensure the safety of their pupils and provide confidence to parents and their communities.

At the World Economic Forum in Abuja, together with partners from across business and civil society, I have launched a programme to ensure the personal safety of children in areas where the threats to them are real and immediate. The Safe Schools Initiative will combine school and community-based plans with special measures to protect children attending some 5,000 public and secondary schools in the most vulnerable areas.

For individual schools, the measures will include reinforcing security infrastructure, planning and response, training for staff, and counselling for students and community members. At the community level, education committees involving parents, teachers and volunteers will be formed, as well as specially developed teacher-student-parent defence units for a rapid response to threats.

The experience of other countries grappling with similar threats has shown that it is crucial to formally engage religious leaders in promoting and safeguarding education. In Afghanistan, in collaboration with community shuras and protection committees, respected imams sometimes use their Friday speeches to raise awareness about the importance of education in Islam. In Peshawar in Pakistan, prominent Muslim leaders delivered speeches about the importance of education and of sending students back to school in a programme supported by UNICEF. In Somalia, religious leaders have gone on public radio in government-controlled areas and visited schools to advocate against the recruitment of children.

In countries such as Nepal and the Philippines, community-led negotiations have helped improve security and take politics out of the classroom. In some communities, diverse political and ethnic groups have come together and agreed to develop Safe School Zones. They have written and signed codes of conduct stipulating what is and is not allowed on school grounds, in order to clamp down on violence, school closures and the politicization of education. In general, the signatory parties kept their commitments, and these efforts helped communities keep schools open, improving the protection of children as well as the way the schools were run.

Millions of children remain locked out of school across the globe. This is not just a moral crisis, it is a wasted economic opportunity. In Africa, it is particularly crucial as the continent’s economy shifts from resource-based to increasingly knowledge-driven industry. It is clear that providing a safe environment for learning is the most fundamental and urgent first step in solving the global education crisis.

Gordon Brown is UN Special Envoy for Global Education; Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (2007-2010).