A primary school in Malawi. Photo by: GPE / Tara O'Connell / CC BY-NC-ND

In a small village on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, girls attending school have been captured and routinely raped, as conflict has been engulfing the country for decades. In the same country, Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda have been responsible for widespread war crimes such as massacres, mass rapes, and the forced recruitment of children. The list goes on. 

If dire trends such as these are to ever change, we must make changes to international law. While the Geneva Conventions grant protection to civilians, staff, and facilities, there is a lack of explicit reference to protecting education in times of conflict. As it stands, innocent men, women, and children across India, Colombia, and Ukraine, who are going about their daily lives working as teachers, or in educational establishments, or simply attending school, are being targeted in conflict.

That is why my organization, Education Above All, is committed to the protection of education from attack.

Between 2013-2017 there were 12,700 attacks on education, harming more than 21,000 students and educators in at least 70 countries — as found in the recent “2018 Education Under Attack” report. These include physical attacks on teachers, students, and schools; military use of schools and universities; child recruitment at, or on the way to, school; sexual violence by armed parties; and attacks on higher education.

Teachers, like doctors, must be protected in conflict zones. Schools should be protected by the Geneva Convention. Education should be explicitly protected under international law. Until we get substantial changes to international law, the Safe Schools Declaration that has now been signed by 80 countries represents a workable global consensus to protect education from attack.

Educational staff and facilities do not benefit from the same explicit “special protection” awarded to cultural and medical facilities. Given the extremely valuable impact education has on a county’s youth, significant consideration ought to be given to awarding such unequivocal protection with either outright bans or increasingly restrictive rules regulating military use of educational facilities in operations.

Why? Aside from the moral obligation to look after children and the people educating them, there are other reasons to safeguard education during conflict. Quality education is an important investment to create a virtuous cycle in which conflict-affected communities can build the framework that allows peace.

Yet at present, despite the alarming increase in attacks on education that inflict lifelong trauma on millions of children, perpetrators are walking free and not held to account in the first place. This gap in accountability undermines the international rule of law and contributes toward depriving children of a future, robbing them of their dignity, and taking away their humanity.

Like perpetrators who, in South Sudan, between 2013 and 2014, forcibly recruited students from schools in the towns such as Bentiu, in Unity state. Or in Rubkona, where the SPLA-IO recruited 413 schoolchildren from their schools to the vile and abhorrent life as a child soldier. These children were later forced into combat.

Or those Colombian armed forces, who in 2013 used a school while fighting against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army in Putumayo, placing children at risk and leading to the suspension of classes.

The Sustainable Development Goals must be protected in full, providing a safe environment for children who want to learn. Advocating for SDG 4 is not just vital in itself — it underpins other goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development such as the commitment to build peace and justice in SDG 16.

As the global development community marks World Humanitarian Day, we must shine a spotlight on the impact that war and conflict is having on children’s right to education. As we take stock of those brave enough to work in conflict conditions, we must recall the countries who stood up and said they would ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all.

We must join together to call for greater protections of schools and education facilities. Let’s join together to make it clear that schools, teachers, and students are #NotATarget.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Maleiha Malik

    Maleiha Malik is executive director of global advocacy organization Protect Education in Insecurity and Conflict (PEIC), a program of Education Above All, a foundation which focuses on protection and provision of education during war, conflict, and insecurity. EAA has programs that protect and provide education in the world’s most challenging conflict zones, such as South Sudan and Syria.