Atrocities v. School Books

We are at a disturbing conjuncture in world history. There are currently more people displaced by war, persecution and conflict than at any time since World War Two -- almost 60 million in total. The world has witnessed the human flotsam of these conflicts wash against Europe's shores. But for every Syrian refugee who has drowned in the Aegean Sea or is still desperately trudging their way to sanctuary, there are thousands more still at risk in their home country.

Refugees make this treacherous journey because, despite the fact that our world has never been wealthier or better connected, millions of people still live in conflict zones or crippling poverty. This burden falls disproportionately upon children, especially girls.

While the cruelties of ISIS are well known, the extremist Islamist group Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is forbidden," regularly attacks students and teachers, burning down remote schools across the Lake Chad Basin. Past atrocities by Boko Haram in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad have killed an estimated 17,000 people and closed almost two thousand schools, denying one million children access to education.

It was also Boko Haram who, notoriously, attacked the school at Chibok in April 2014, kidnapping 276 Nigerian schoolgirls who were preparing for exams. Those girls were enslaved by Boko Haram or in some cases, coerced into becoming suicide bombers. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign made Boko Haram and the Chibok schoolgirls global news. But almost two years later, the hashtag is no longer trending and the girls are still missing.

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, an estimated 75% of Afghan districts have no middle-schools or high-schools for girls. As a result, only around 20% of Afghan girls and women older than fifteen are literate in a country where there is a disturbing correlation between education, gender and death.

Lauryn Oates, who worked on a major study on behalf of the Afghan government and UNICEF, found that the more educated an Afghan mother is, the more likely she is to marry later in life, to survive childbirth, to have children who are vaccinated, who attend school and are adequately nourished, and the more likely her household is to have access to fresh water and sanitation. Indeed, as Oates pored over statistics from 13,000 Afghan households, she found that "the single greatest predictor for nearly every single indicator" for health, welfare and development, was "the mother's education level."

The implications for international development agencies are enormous. Encouraging girls' education in Afghanistan isn't a sop to western feminism, it is a calculated investment in a strategy that works.

These are lessons we need to learn and act on. According to UNICEF, there are currently nearly 24 million children in 22 countries affected by conflict who are unable to attend school. This includes 40 percent of all Afghan children and 41 percent of those in Sudan. Besides Syria, the worst case may be South Sudan.

South Sudan's civil war has devastated the world's newest country. Since December 2013, tens of thousands of South Sudanese have been killed and hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee. During the civil war it was reported that both government-allied forces and rebel militia recruited child soldiers and committed targeted killings of children from rival ethnic groups. Less widely publicized is the fact that the war has also deprived 51 percent of South Sudanese schoolchildren of an education.

Before the civil war began, South Sudan was already one of the poorest countries in the world. Since then, schools have been requisitioned by armed groups or damaged or destroyed during fighting. The net result is a generation of South Sudanese children who face the threat of being "unable to learn even the basic reading and writing skills" and are "at risk of losing their futures," according to UNICEF's Chief of Education, Jo Bourne.

The situation in South Sudan is exacerbated by the fact that in the midst of war and mass atrocities, funding for teachers, school books and chalk seems like an extravagance. In Uganda, where UNICEF is providing essential services to thousands of South Sudanese refugees, the education program is missing 89% of its funding.

Education is not a luxury, it is an important tool for preventing a recurrence of conflict. It is hard to imagine a better future for South Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq if the next generation lacks the education, skills and knowledge to build a post-conflict society. Children who are not in school, who are languishing in refugee camps, or trapped in conflict ridden societies, are also most at risk of being recruited as child soldiers, or forced into bonded labour or slavery.

Sixty-eight years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted at the second UN General Assembly held in Paris in the dim winter of 1948. The most devastating war ever fought amongst human beings was barely three years past and the entire United Nations consisted of only fifty-eight states. The Universal Declaration boldly proclaims that all human beings, regardless of who they are or where they live, have the right to an education.

We have made much progress since 1948. Last September, the UN adopted the new Sustainable Development Goals. Of the 17 Goals, Goal 4 is to "ensure inclusive and equitable quality education" for every human being on this planet. This is a target all 193 governments who are now members of the UN have committed to achieve by 2030. But with millions of children deprived of a proper education and exposed to violent conflict, we are still struggling to make the promise of universal rights a universal reality.

Simon Adams is Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and a member of International Advisory Board of Skateistan, a sports and education organization that works in Cambodia, South Africa and Afghanistan.

This blog was originally published by Global Citizen on March 17.