In war zones across the world, education is being cut out of foreign aid – so young people join Isis instead

The world is now witnessing the highest levels of forced displacement that have ever been recorded. If we don't respond by rebuilding schools and universities, the cycle of terrorism will go on, and atrocities like the one in Manchester will continue

Maleiha Malik
Tuesday 30 May 2017 12:50 BST
Displaced Iraqis flee their homes in west Mosul as security forces advance during the ongoing offensive
Displaced Iraqis flee their homes in west Mosul as security forces advance during the ongoing offensive (Getty)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


We all know that education is a fundamental human right. But more than that, quality education is a foundation of tolerance, pluralism and security in society – something which is pertinent to remember in the wake of attacks like the one we saw at Manchester Arena this week. Put simply, a lack of education is a driver of extremist ideologies; in a world where there are so many conflict zones, it’s more urgent than ever that foreign aid is allocated for education that gives young people the resilience and critical skills to reject hate and violence.

Across Libya, Syria and South Sudan, the displacement of children because of war is commonplace – and when children are displaced, their right to education is usually denied. The consequences are dire and can be extreme and yet the perpetrators are not held to account.

In almost all of today’s armed conflicts, schools and other institutions that should be safe for children and teachers are ripped apart by violence. In 2016, the United Nations documented attacks on 84 schools around the world, with at least 69 children losing their lives and many others injured.

Schools have become targets of war. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack has noted that there has been a series of attacks on schools in at least 21 countries experiencing armed conflict and insecurity since 2013. These are not accidents.

At the moment, we are failing in our duty to prevent this from happening – and we are putting ourselves in danger through this failure. The current refugee crises across South Sudan, Syria and Iraq are just three examples of this cycle of manmade conflict, displacement and humanitarian crisis. In Syria, over two million children have been forcibly displaced by war. We have reached crisis point as manmade conflict is outpacing our humanitarian response.

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What becomes of these children who are denied their right to education? Where do they go? Usually, the answer is into poverty or militancy. When children learn with tolerance and logic, they are given the tools to think independently and critically about ideas they are presented with. This makes them less vulnerable to those who seek to use them for political, religious and violent ends.

We are all duty-bound to find a solution: cutting foreign aid, as some parties would like us to do, is self-defeating. Investing in quality education means teaching children about “human rights, gender equality, promotion of culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity”. The amount of money allocated to quality education within world aid budgets is a crucial part of any strategy to combat the ideology of groups such as Isis.

Education allows citizens to participate meaningfully in political, economic, social and cultural activities, both locally and globally. The end result is democracy and regional stability. At the moment, the refugee crisis means we face the possibility of a lost generation – lost to extremist ideologies such as Isis, lost to conflict and held back from the roles they might have taken in making their own countries strong again.

This is why education during war, conflict and humanitarian crises is not just a “bonus” – something to strive after once food, water and shelter have been secured – it is essential, and must be part of crisis-planning from the outset.

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In international law, protection is extended to educational facilities as civilian objects during armed conflicts. All these issues are connected – they highlight how education plays the role of an enabling right. In other words, education ensures that children and adults are guaranteed access to other human rights and that these rights are upheld by the state and other individuals in positions of power. Quality education is unique to the extent that, as an enabling right, it can unlock economic potential, and drive improvements in health and nutrition.

The world is now witnessing the highest levels of forced displacement ever recorded. One of the simplest and yet most effective things we can do to combat that is to work to keep schools and universities open, and teachers in employment.

How should politicians respond globally to this? By putting money aside for conflict zones that is specifically used to get children back into school, provide catch-up education and informal learning opportunities, and to train teachers to ensure quality education after schools are rehabilitated. War, conflict and insecurity are avoidable reasons for 25 million children between the ages of six and 15 missing out on school in conflict zones. Holding those responsible for manmade war and conflict that cause life-long trauma to children accountable has never been more important.

During this general election cycle, and at the G7 and G20 meetings of world leaders this summer, we need to demand that our leaders have sensible responses to the larger conflicts in our world. Protecting education from attack, and providing children with the skills to be tolerant and resilient, is one way in which terrorism internationally can be driven down – that is self-evident.

Maleiha Malik is an academic advisor to Education Above All, a foundation which focuses on protection and provision of education during war, conflict and insecurity. EAA has programmes that protect and provide education in the world’s most challenging conflict zones such as South Sudan and Syria

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