First International Day Draws Attention to Attacks on Education

By Jerome Marston, GCPEA
International Parliamentary Network for Education, September 23, 2020
A boy writes on the board of a damaged classroom in Idlib governorate, Syria in July 2019. © 2019 Save the Children's partner in Syria, Hurras Network.

September 9th 2020, marked the first United Nations International Day to Protect Education from Attack.  The day draws attention to attacks on schools and universities, their students and staff.  With it, the United Nations General Assembly sent a clear message that the international community must act urgently to end attacks; governments have a responsibility to provide safe, quality education; and schools and universities must be protected as safe havens for learning.

A day dedicated to protecting education from attack was welcomed by political leaders, humanitarian and rights organizations, education providers, and foundations the world over, many of whom had raised alarm bells for years. 

Education Under Attack

A recent report from the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) identified approximately 11,000 reported attacks on education or military use worldwide, between 2015 and 2019.  More than two-thirds of these attacks were on schools. 

Airstrikes, artillery fire, gunfire, improvised explosive devices, and looting damaged or destroyed schools in at least 26 countries over the last five years, with Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen most heavily affected.  These attacks on schools not only kill and injure, they also prevent students from receiving an education and hinder long-term peace and development. 

MPs have taken several important steps to protect schools and education from attack

For one, parliamentarians from around the world pledged their commitment to education in situations of conflict and insecurity through the Doha Declaration

As another example, the European Parliament urged its member states to protect learning from attack through a resolution on education for children in emergency situations and protracted crises

Building on past advances, parliamentarians can ensure more schools are safe through several key actions. 

Children play outside their war-damaged school near Idlib, Syria. © 2019 Save the Children 

Whether in conflict-affected countries or supporting them from afar, some of the actions parliamentarians can take to safeguard schools from attack are:

1) Urge governments to endorse and implement the Safe Schools Declaration 

The Safe Schools Declaration is a political commitment to protect students, teachers, schools, and universities from conflict.  The Declaration has 105 signatories; by endorsing, governments express their commitment to safeguarding schools and continuing education during conflict.

Parliamentarians in non-endorsing countries should encourage their ministries of education, defence, and foreign affairs to learn about and endorse the Declaration.  MPs should identify gaps in legislation to protect education from attack and draw attention to the matter by putting questions to their government on the subject. 

MPs in countries that have already endorsed can lend support by sharing their experiences with colleagues in non-endorsing countries and facilitating talks between relevant ministries in both governments so that any reservations about endorsement might be addressed.

Parliamentarians in endorsing countries should also ensure the Declaration is fully implemented.  Among other steps, MPs should:

Regional parliaments also play an important role in urging member states to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration.  For instance, the European Parliament should call on remaining European Union member states to endorse the Declaration.

2) Ensure that schools in conflict-affected areas are safe to re-open after Covid-19 closures 

Attacks continued after schools were closed due to Covid-19; and they persisted when schools re-opened.  For instance, in Mali, GCPEA identified 31 reported incidents of attacks on education, and 500 threats against teachers and schools, in 2020, 27 of which occurred in June when schools reopened for exams. 

Parliamentarians in conflict-affected countries should prioritize funding and other resources to carry out risk assessments to determine whether schools are safe to re-open, as well as security and response plans to prevent attacks in areas where they may occur.  These assessments must include girls’ schools, which are routinely targeted for attack in several countries. 

As in-person learning resumes, MPs should ensure administrators are not pressured to re-open schools where doing so is unsafe unless appropriate security measures are in place.  Where re-opening schools is not possible due to risk of attack, parliamentarians must ensure that alternative or distance learning measures—especially those developed during Covid-19—are inclusive and used to keep students safely learning.  These goals might be achieved through oversight, funding provision, awareness raising, or other means.

MPs support from non-conflict-affected countries can ensure their governments allocate multi-year, flexible funding for child protection abroad, which then may be used locally for risk assessments, safety plans, and distance learning programmes, among other relevant efforts.

3) Guarantee that schools are not used as polling stations where it is unsafe to do so

Over the last five years, GCPEA identified attacks on schools in 11 countries, where armed parties attempted to damage electoral materials stored in schools, deter voters, harm politicians, or otherwise disrupt the electoral process, often using arson or explosive devices. 

In Afghanistan, for example, over 100 schools were reportedly targeted while serving as polling stations during parliamentary and presidential elections in 2018 and 2019, respectively.  Other countries affected by such attacks included Bangladesh, Mozambique, Nepal, and Nigeria.   

First, risk assessments must be carried out to determine whether using schools as polling centres is safe.  If it is not, MPs should propose legislation or other measures to bar schools from use as polling stations in at-risk regions and suggest alternative voting locations.

MPs have a particular stake in ensuring schools are safe when their countries go to the polls, because these attacks sometimes occur during parliamentary elections.  Even MPs outside conflict-affected countries can help by:

  • Sharing best practices if their country has addressed the problem or otherwise facilitating learning on the topic.
  • Raising awareness about the problem, especially if their government sends peacekeeping troops or election monitors to the affected country.  
Girls study in a classroom destroyed by airstrikes in Taizz, Yemen. © 2019 UNICEF/UN1275387/Al-Sabri 

A call to action

In sum, parliamentarians have taken many important steps towards keeping schools safe during conflict.  But, with attacks occurring on a nearly daily basis in many countries around the world, much remains to be done.  The International Day to Protect Education from Attack is a call to action.

Whether in conflict-affected countries or through support from afar, parliamentarians can help safeguard schools from attack. The International Parliamentary Network for Education has an important role to play in supporting MPs to use a range of parliamentary processes to help protect schools and education from attack so that no child is denied their right to education.

Jerome Martson is a researcher at the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, where he contributes to the Education under Attack 2020 report among other duties. Trained in qualitative and quantitative research methods, Jerome has extensive experience collecting and analyzing data on conflict, including in survey design and administration. Jerome holds a PhD in Political Science from Brown University, where he focused on human rights, conflict, and organized crime.