How We Can Ensure Education Doesn’t Become a Casualty of War

by Justin Doubleday

The kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria by terrorist group Boko Haram in April cast a spotlight on the dangers that children in conflict areas face in simply going to school. Nearly five months after their capture, the majority of the girls remain prisoners of Boko Haram.

Last year, the United Nations reported that half of the 57 million out-of-school children in the world live in conflict areas like northern Nigeria. Schools in these areas are attacked for a range of ideological, religious, and political reasons.

Parents are less likely to send their children to school in unstable situations, and the quality of education can deteriorate as qualified teachers and teacher training become less available. Conflict often displaces children, making it even harder for them to access education. In Syria, the civil war has put more than 2.8 million children out of school, according to UNICEF.

Sarah Dryden-Peterson, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, studies the relationship between community development and education. In an interview with YPFP, she said persistent attacks on schools can create a cycle of conflict in some regions.

“Conflict has an effect on education,” she said, “but education also has effects on conflict.”

Prolonged conflict can create an education void, in which students don’t go to school and new teachers aren’t trained. That creates a situation rife for more instability and violence. Dryden-Peterson pointed to Somalia as a prime example of a country where a lack of education has fomented greater instability. Two decades of armed conflict has fractured the school systems and created a lost generation of uneducated young people. Between 2000 and 2007, less than a quarter of all children in Somalia had access to primary school.

The country’s instability has allowed terrorist group al-Shabab to thrive. It controlled much of southern Somalia until 2011, using schools as recruitment center for boys while segregating girls and forcing them to be fully covered. Al-Shabab continues to carry out attacks in Somalia and neighboring Kenya.

“Conflict has an effect on education, but education also has effects on conflict.”

Dryden-Peterson focuses her research on “multiply-marginalized” students in conflict regions. These children face discrimination based on multiple factors such as gender, ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic class. During a Congressional staff briefing about the Nigeria kidnapping, Dryden-Peterson said the abducted Nigerian girls are a prime example of multiply-marginalized children because they are poor, from rural areas, and women.

Dryden-Peterson argues for a two-pronged approach to supporting education in conflict areas. First, support and enforce the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statutes, international humanitarian laws aimed at protecting civilian during armed conflicts. Second, invest more in organizations like the Global Partnership for Education, which promotes quality education for all children, including those in poor and conflict-ridden areas.

Dryden-Peterson said that it’s key for countries like the United States to invest in education – teachers, teacher training, and infrastructure – without tying the issue to national security. When education funding is tied to security, it ensures that any deterioration of the security situation will result in education’s demise as well. Instead, education’s role should be elevated to a right, regardless of the level of conflict at hand.

“The moment that it becomes tied to a security agenda, it becomes tied to something that is embedded within a conflict,” Dryden-Peterson said. “And that can exacerbate the issues.”

Justin Doubleday is a contributing editor for Charged Affairs.