In February 2009, the Pakistan Taliban blew up the school
where Ali Khan taught. “I heard about the blast from my neighbour before I left my house that morning,” he says. “He was just passing by the school, and it was completely destroyed. Everything was ashes.”
Khan rushed to where the school in Charbagh had stood to find distraught children and horrified parents gazing at the ruins. The Pakistan
Taliban had blown it up to underline its opposition to education: it was one of many times it demolished schools in a campaign to control the Swat region.
“There was a panic-like situation in the community,” says Khan. But despite the fear, the teachers and principal decided not to let the bombers win, and they reopened the school. “We knew we had to reopen. We were 52 teachers at that time. Not one resigned.” A local primary school opened its doors and children were taught on a double-shift system: primary in the morning, secondary school in the afternoon. Khan says the effect on their education was serious. “For a long time, the children feared very much. Around 150 did not return. Classrooms built for 40 students instead had to hold 120. It became difficult for teachers to teach and for children to learn.”
Khan’s story is far from unique. According to the global education coalition A World at School, between 2009 and 2014 there were at least 920 attacks on educational institutions in Pakistan, including the terrible massacre at the Peshawar army school
last December, in which 132 children and nine teachers died.
This week, the Guardian is teaming up with A World at School to support its campaign for children across the world to be secure in their classrooms, and is backing the organisation’s petition calling on world leaders to keep promises made at the United Nations in 2000, to remove barriers stopping girls and boys from going to school, especially in conflict affected countries and where there are attacks on schools.
Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts to make schools safer are increasing. In June, the Norwegian government and others will call on governments to support a safe schools declaration to ensure that schools are protected from military use during armed conflict, by making them sacrosanct spaces in international law, as hospitals are.
Gordon Brown, the UN special envoy on global education, who is championing the declaration, says: “We want to show that we are doing everything in our power to make it possible to go to school … free of intimidation and free of fear. No terrorist group should interfere with a child’s right to get something that is absolutely basic to their future. It is their human right to have an education.” Brown is asking governments not only to sign the declaration, but to commit more money to a fund that countries can draw on to provide better school security as well as to support effective community backing for schools.
With more than half of the world’s out-of-school girls and boys now living in conflict hotspots and in response to the growing number of attacks on classrooms, A World at School has also launched a series of Safe Schools Initiatives: the first one was recently adopted by Nigeria
. And in Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last month agreed a 15-point plan created by A World at School to increase security for pupils and staff. Later this week, Brown and the Pakistani government will announce new measures as part of the Pakistan initiative.
Human rights reports
suggest that in Pakistan at least 19 education staff were killed between 2009 and 2012, including five female teachers shot as they returned home from a community event, and a female teacher murdered in front of her son on her way to school.
The number of Pakistani children murdered either at school or on school transport since 2009 is conservatively estimated at 172. And Pakistan is not the only country where children and teachers risk their lives to go to school. According to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack
(GCPEA), schools in at least 70 countries were subjected to assault between 2009 and 2014, with many attacks specifically targeting girls, parents and teachers who spoke out for gender equality.
The attempted murder in 2012 of Malala Yousafzai and two other girls, Kainat Riaz and Shazia Ramzan, as they travelled on a school bus, made world headlines. Many girls and women were killed and injured before them, and more have died since.
The GCPEA says that, in addition to Pakistan, the most dangerous places to go to school are Colombia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Gaza, Syria and Nigeria. In Gaza last summer, 148 schools were bombed, while in Syria, one in five has been struck, with children being killed by mortar attacks while at school. In Nigeria, by the end of last year, 338 schools had been destroyed, at least 196 teachers and 314 students had been killed, and more than 276 students had been abducted.
Khan says he briefly considered whether he should leave teaching. The wobble didn’t last long. “I was born a teacher, and I will die in the profession because of my passion for educating children,” he says. “We have so much talent here. Pakistan has the potential to become a leading and developed nation in south Asia. But we must focus on education.”