Schools that should keep children safe are under attack

Leila Zerrougui on the destruction and occupation of schools during warfare, writing as Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict

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In conflicts raging across the world, the extremity of violence against children has increased. Every day, innocent lives are lost and many more altered irrevocably, with children often the direct targets of attacks intended to cause maximum civilian casualties, terrorise communities and provoke outrage worldwide.

In the midst of such shocking violence, children are in desperate need of protection, and interventions to keep them safe must be prioritised. Education offers a vital source of safety and hope for children, allowing them to learn, play and escape the horrors of war. During my time as Special Representative and on trips to gather evidence on children in armed conflict, I have seen children taking extraordinary steps to continue their schooling – travelling many hours across conflict lines, braving snipers and soldiers, abductions and arrests. I have also seen entire families leaving everything behind because their children no longer had a safe school to go to.

Going to school should not be an act of bravery. Children should never fear that by going to school they will be attacked, radicalised, recruited by armed groups or forced into marriage. Yet it remains the case that the schools that should keep children safe are under attack, leaving children increasingly vulnerable to violence, exploitation and abuse.

In recent years, a pattern of attacks on students, teachers and education facilities has emerged, with schools targeted in particular by extremist groups. Last year in Aleppo, around 150 Syrian boys were abducted by Isis on their way home after their school exams, and children as young as seven have been targeted by armed groups who use indoctrination and military training as tools for recruitment. Across Syria, around 6,000 schools have been completely or partially destroyed during the conflict. So too in Yemen, where last year over 500 schools were damaged or destroyed in just over six months of fighting.

Beyond this immediate destruction, in the majority of conflicts around the world, armed forces and groups are using schools for military purposes – occupying them as barracks or training grounds, or used for weapons stores or detention centres. This tactic of war violates the sanctity of schools, turning them from safe havens into targets for bombing and recruiting grounds for armed forces and groups. In Afghanistan, Somalia and South Sudan, to name just a few examples, there have been verified cases of schools being used, not just by armed groups but by government forces as well.

The use of schools by armed forces and groups, even for a few days can have lasting repercussions. When children lose this protective environment as a result of school closures or occupation, families often have no other option but to flee in search of a safer alternative. It is every parent’s imperative to provide their children with opportunities for a better future. We must collectively make every effort to ensure that schools in conflict zones remain open, continuing education without interruption. We must also ensure that children are safe, in order to maintain a sense of normalcy, build resilience, and promote reconciliation.

Achieving this requires the international community to invest significantly in children’s protection and education, making this a priority in the immediate and long-term response to conflict. This is what the Children Not Soldiers campaign seeks to achieve, galvanising support to end the recruitment of children by government armies – but requiring renewed commitment in order to build on progress so far. Greater political will is also needed in order to protect schools from military use, urging all parties to conflict to refrain from actions that deny children an education and calling on governments to sign up to the Safe Schools Declaration.

This May, the world will gather at the first World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul – a chance to change how we respond to children in emergencies. In doing so, we must put children’s protection first, ensuring schools are always safe places for children to learn and play, not battlegrounds for war and conflict. The violence we witness today should not just shock us; it must be a call to action for us all.

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