The war on education

Business Day, May 15, 2014

The kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in northern Nigeria by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram is beyond outrageous. Sadly, it is just the latest battle in a savage war being 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 10,000 violent attacks on schools and universities in the past four years, according to a report by 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 and Somali schoolchildren forced to become soldiers to Muslim boys attacked by ethnic Burmese/Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar 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 the actual targets of terrorists who see education as a threat. (Indeed, Boko Haram is literally translated to mean that “false” or “Western” education is “forbidden.”) In at least 30 countries, there is 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 around the world, 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, Nigeria’s capital, this week, together with partners from business and civil society, I launched a program 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 primary 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 counseling for students and community members. At the community level, education committees comprising parents, teachers, and volunteers will be formed, along with specially developed teacher-student-parent defense units for rapid response to threats.

Other countries’ experience grappling with similar threats has shown that it is crucial to engage religious leaders formally in promoting and safeguarding education. In Afghanistan, in collaboration with community shuras and protection committees, respected imams sometimes use their Friday sermons to raise awareness about the importance of education in Islam.

In Peshawar, Pakistan, in a program supported by UNICEF, prominent Muslims leaders have spoken out about the importance of education and of sending students back to school. In Somalia, religious leaders have gone on public radio in government-controlled areas and visited schools to advocate against the recruitment of child soldiers.

In countries such as Nepal and the Philippines, community-led negotiations have helped to 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 prevent violence, school closures, and the politicization of education. In general, the signatory parties have kept their commitments, helping communities to keep schools open, improve the safety of children, and strengthen school administration.

Millions of children remain locked out of school around the world. This not just a moral crisis; it is also a wasted economic opportunity. In Africa, for example, education is particularly crucial as the continent’s economies increasingly shift from resource extraction to knowledge-driven industry. Providing a safe environment for learning is the most fundamental and urgent first step in solving the global education crisis.

Gordon Brown