Schools Should Be Safe Havens and Places of Learning Not Theaters of War

Huffington Post, July 1, 2014

Today marks the 80th day of captivity for the more than 200 Chibok girls who have been kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram and held in captivity in remote forests of northern Nigeria.

For nearly 11 weeks, the girls’ families have been living through every parent’s nightmare; waking up not knowing whether your daughter is dead or alive, and spending all your waking hours worried that she is being molested, raped or has been trafficked and sold into slavery.

Yesterday in the Nigerian Borno state capital of Maiduguri, the terrorist group Boko Haram bombed dozens in the shopping market. In the last month alone, the sect has been responsible for a massive explosion in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, which killed at least 24 people; the bombing of a medical school in the northern city of Kano which killed at least eight people; an attack at a military camp that survivors say killed at least 51 soldiers and various village incursions in the north. This includes a Sunday raid where fighters sprayed gunfire, killing 30 worshippers in four churches, just a few miles from where the Chibok schoolgirls were abducted.

It is a reminder of the world’s limited attention span that when last week it was reported that another 90 schoolchildren — 60 girls and 30 boys — were kidnapped from another village in northern Nigeria by the same terrorist group, there was only a short flicker of attention.

The crisis facing Nigeria now extends beyond the need for surveillance and aircraft and helicopter support to locate and free the girls and to stop further terrorist attacks. A new crisis has developed: children have stopped going to school in most northerly states of Nigeria. Many schools have been closed for weeks.

I talked to three of the girls who had escaped the clutches of Boko Haram by running away. All three want to be doctors, but they cannot find a safe environment in which to learn and sit their exams. Like many others, their education is on hold.

And so today, a worldwide appeal that focuses on a girl’s right to education will be started. It calls for funding for a safe schools initiative, and it is designed to ensure that every girl can go to school again — free from fear of assault, violation and abductions. It is designed within Nigeria by the Nigerian government and the business community with support from education experts around the world.

Nigerian Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, will formally launch the initiative at a meeting of British Members of Parliament whom she is addressing in the House of Commons in London this afternoon. At this meeting, I will ask the U.K. government to step up its support, as well as do more with aircraft, helicopter and surveillance support to aid the rescue mission to recapture the missing girls.

The Safe Schools Initiative provides provisions for better school infrastructure, including basic walls, lighting and communications systems. It also demands working with parents and teachers to empower and reassure them that the security of their children is being taken seriously.

The $100 million Safe Schools Fund paired with the initiative has already attracted $10 million from the Nigerian business community, $10 million from the Nigerian government, £1 million from the United Kingdom, $1.5 million from Norway, and promises of support from the United States and the European Union as we develop an international co-financing mechanism.

Already, security experts from the Metropolitan Police have gone at their own expense to Abuja to offer to help the Nigerian government. There are also experts from UNICEF-backed initiatives for safe schools providing guidance and experiences from other countries. But I hope we can do more.

Schools should be safe havens for children and places for learning and should never become theaters of war. At the UN in September, there will be pressure on every country to adopt military guidelines that include rules of engagement preventing schools — like hospitals — from being militarized or used as instruments for waging war in conflicts or civil wars. But the need is now urgent and immediate.

A worldwide appeal has now been issued by the charity “A World at School” to raise some of the estimated $100 million now needed to fund its recommendations for safe schools. The charity suggests improving school safety infrastructure, such as walls, lighting, and communications equipment, and community-based programs that make it safe for girls to go to school.

With the initial $20 million already pledged, we will now see the public challenge governments and aid agencies to contribute an additional funding needed to ensure safe schools for all Nigerian children. Because current donor contributions are not enough to cover the thousands of schools in need of security installations, I will ask at the Commons debate today for further help, for it is not just in Nigeria that this initiative must take off. Neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon face similar threats from terrorists groups determined to peddle their perverted and extreme religious dogma that girls should not be at school. And they need our support, too.

By Gordon Brown, Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; UN Special Envoy for Global Education