The Other Nobel Winners

They’re going to need an extra-big stage in Oslo this year.
The Mark News, October 16, 2014

When Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai pick up their Nobel Peace Prizes, there are going to be a lot of other winners standing alongside them. About 2.2 billion, in fact.

You might not be able to spot on stage the 168 million child laborers from around the world, but they will be there in spirit. Most are involved in work so hazardous – such as in mines, as child soldiers, or involving dangerous chemicals or drugs – that it directly endangers their health, safety, and development. The rest are toiling in places such as farms, other families’ homes, or factories.

Child labor may look like a short-term solution to economic hardship, but it’s actually a cause of poverty. People who start work as children end up with less education and lower earnings as adults. They are then more likely to send their own children to work, perpetuating the cycle of poverty from generation to generation.

An internationally agreed-upon timetable to end the worst forms of child labor by 2016 is lagging. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize win should be an impetus to make it a global priority.

This will require expanding opportunities for education – especially education that is truly free for primary-school-aged children. It will also mean providing poor families with assistance that can alleviate the economic desperation that often drives them to send their children to work, and effective enforcement of child labor laws.

Also jostling for a little virtual room on the Oslo stage will be the 121 million children who don’t attend school. Among these are 58 million children of primary school age who aren’t in school despite the government obligations under international law to make primary education compulsory and available free to all. Some of the many barriers include discriminatory attitudes and practices that impede girls’ education, the prevalence of child marriage, and persistent sexual harassment at school.

And then there are the millions of students who take great risks to learn in the face of adversity and conflict. In 2012 – the year Malala Yousafzai was shot while doing just that – government armed forces and non-state armed groups attacked students or schools in at least 22 countries, including Syria, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Thailand. In some cases, armed groups target schools because they see them as symbols of the government. In others, groups carry out attacks because they oppose what is being taught, or to whom.

Students, schools, and education are also endangered when national armed forces or armed groups use schools for military purposes during armed conflict – for barracks, bases, weapons caches, detention centers, or training for soldiers. Students are deprived of education entirely, are distracted from their learning, or become fearful of the military activities going on around them and stop attending. Many parents keep their children – especially girls – home due to concerns about sexual harassment from soldiers. Schools occupied by combatants have been attacked by opposing forces, in some cases killing or injuring students in the crossfire.

In her 2013 autobiography, Malala Yousafzai describes discovering that a school run by her father had been occupied and used by Pakistani government forces while she and her family were displaced by the fighting in and around her hometown. “I felt sorry that our precious school had become a battlefield,” she lamented.

All unlawful attacks on students, teachers, and schools should be investigated, and those responsible held to account. Students kept from their studies by conflict should regain access to education as quickly as possible, and receive psychosocial support if needed. Damaged and destroyed schools should be rebuilt as quickly as feasible and safe so that students can return.

Norway is currently leading an initiative to develop new international standards known as the Lucens Guidelines, which will advocate for better protections for schools from military use during times of armed conflict. Militaries around the world should incorporate such concrete protections for schools into their rules and training.

The Peace Prize award ceremony will be rather packed this year. But each of the world’s 2.2 billion children definitely deserves the recognition.

Bede Sheppard is deputy director of the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch.