Protection of Education in Conflict Zones – a Step in the Right Direction

On Friday October 30, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution on the protection of education in conflict zones.

This is one of the most important matters on which Norway has facilitated negotiations in the Security Council and the resolution is a major step in the right direction for protecting the right of the most vulnerable children to attend school. Education is also good peace policy. The next goal must be for the education provided to meet certain quality standards and for all children to have the right to attend school, regardless of gender, ethnicity or religion. This is crucial for creating peace and development in the longer term.

School children in Myanmar. Photo: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid / Flickr

A security question

Why is children’s education a relevant concern for the Security Council? Is education a question of security? Absolutely.

Schools in conflict zones are targeted by attackers who seek to kidnap children and force them to join armed groups. Attacks against schools and hospitals is one of six grave violations of children in conflict.  The interferes with children’s education and girls in particular are kept away from school due to fears of attacks. Interruptions to education damage children’s future economic opportunities, and these children will find it more difficult to participate in society as adults. Poor access to education is also an important factor for understanding recruitment to armed groups. Accordingly, a lack of education appears not only to be destabilizing, but also to have a negative effect on peace-building and development. Ensuring access to education in crisis areas is thus seen as an important instrument for promoting long-term peace, democracy and development.

Education for peace

Does education in itself create peace? Yes, according to the research.

Firstly, increased commitment to education reduces discontent with government authorities, especially if access is relatively equal for all. This can reduce incentives to rebel among ethnic or religious minorities, for example.

Secondly, improving access to education will better equip teenagers and young adults to find work that pays a living wage, thus reducing the attraction of joining a rebel group.

Thirdly, better education can contribute to teaching young people how to understand more complex problems and find peaceful ways to resolve them.

A global learning crisis

When considering education in crisis areas, the main focus is often on ensuring the widest access possible. But educational content and quality is perhaps equally important for reducing the risk of conflict and promoting democracy and development.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where many countries are experiencing widespread conflict, UNESCO has calculated that 87 percent of primary and lower-secondary schoolchildren fail to acquire basic literacy skills. UNESCO describes this situation as a “global learning crisis”. Good quality education is often linked to factors such as good teaching resources, mother-tongue teaching, and an adequate supply of qualified teachers. All these factors are often in short supply in crisis areas.

If teaching is of low quality, it can create false expectations about job prospects. The contents of textbooks and lessons can have a negative effect on children and teenagers by promoting nationalist ideologies or religious extremism. Such content can widen social divides and increase support for political violence. Accordingly, a greater focus on improving the content and quality of lessons can reduce the risk of conflict.

Inequalities between groups

In many conflict-affected countries, there are often dramatic educational inequalities between different groups. Typically, access to education is worse for girls, ethnic and religious minorities, the poorest children, former child soldiers and refugee or internally-displaced children. In Nigeria, for example, Christian women in the south have more than triple the years of education of Muslim women in the north.

Our studies show that systemic educational inequality can provide fertile conditions for serious conflict, in particular when the differences follow ethnic, religious or regional divides. Reducing such inequalities in access to education can thus give an additional peace dividend.

Next steps

Through the new resolution on protecting classrooms from conflict, Norway is also furthering its efforts in relation to the UN’s Women, Peace and Security agenda. Educating girls contributes to economic development and can also increase girls’ and women’s ability to meaningfully participate and have an influence in peace-building and democratic processes. Measures to boost girls’ access to education could include ensuring the provision of safe toilet facilities at schools, safe routes to and from schools, and female teachers and role models.

Now Norway must focus on ensuring that education in conflict zones reaches all children and is also of high quality. This is challenging, but at the same time crucial for peace and reconciliation in areas where many children are traumatized and have dropped out of school for long periods. Here we need more research and more knowledge about the kinds of concrete educational measures that will work best to ensure learning and inclusion for crisis-affected children. This new resolution is an important recognition of the need for safe education in conflict zones. But if education is to contribute to peace and security, it is necessary for it also to result in actual knowledge and learning.

Further reading (PRIO research on conflict, children and education):

The authors:

  • Gudrun Østby, is a Research Director at PRIO
  • Ragnhild Nordås is a Senior Researcher at PRIO and at the University of Michigan

Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext

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