Armed conflict blocking efforts to achieve universal primary schooling, UN warns

1 March 2011 – Armed conflict is robbing 28 million children of an education by exposing them to widespread rape and other sexual violence, targeted attacks on schools and other human rights abuses, according to a United Nations report issued today.

The number accounts for 42 per cent of the primary school age children globally not enrolled in school and living in poor countries affected by conflict, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) warned in its 2011 Global Monitoring Report, which also set out a comprehensive agenda for change – including tougher action against human rights violations, an overhaul of global aid priorities and strengthened rights for displaced people.

“Armed conflict remains a major roadblock to human development in many parts of the world, yet its impact on education is widely neglected,” UNESCO’s Director-General, Irina Bokova, said, noting that the report – The hidden crisis: Armed conflict and education – documents the scale of this problem, identifies its root causes and offers solid proposals for change.

The world is not on track to achieve the six Education for All goals that over 160 countries signed up to at the World Education Forum in 2000 in Dakar, Senegal, with the aim of achieving 100 per cent child enrolment in primary schools by 2015, the report stresses – the report itself is the prime instrument to assess global progress towards achieving the six goals.

The report added that the number of children out of school stood at 67 million in 2008 – the most recent year in which the data was compiled – and is falling too slowly to meet the target, which will be missed by a wide margin, especially in regions riven by conflict.

Rape and other forms of sexual violence have been widely used as a war tactic in many countries and insecurity and fear associated with sexual violence keep young girls, in particular, out of school. Although the international courts set up after the wars in the former Yugoslavia and genocide in Rwanda have firmly established rape and other forms of sexual violence as war crimes, these acts remain widely deployed weapons of war.

Of the rapes reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), one third involve children, with 13 per cent against children under ten, the report states. It calls for the end to a culture of impunity surrounding sexual violence, stronger monitoring of human rights violations affecting education, and creation of an International Commission on Rape and Sexual Violence backed by the International Criminal Court.

Unreported rape in conflict-affected areas in eastern DRC may be ten to 20 times the reported level, and the report warns that sexual violence has a devastating impact on education, impairing learning potential, creating a climate of fear that keeps girls at home, and leading to family breakdown that deprives children of a nurturing environment.

“Children and education are not just getting caught in the cross-fire, they are increasingly the targets of violent conflict,” the report’s director, Kevin Watkins, said. “The failure of governments to protect human rights is causing children deep harm – and taking away their only chance of an education. It is time for the international community to bring to account the perpetrators of heinous crimes like systematic rape, and to back UN resolutions with decisive action.”

The report is endorsed by four Nobel Peace Prize laureates: Oscar Arias Sánchez of Costa Rica, Shirin Ebadi of Iran, José Ramos-Horta of Timor-Leste and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. In an introduction to the report, Archbishop Tutu said “it documents in stark detail the sheer brutality of the violence against some of the world’s most vulnerable people, including its schoolchildren, and it challenges world leaders of all countries, rich and poor, to act decisively.”

The reports note that 35 countries were affected by armed conflict from 1999 to 2008. Children and schools are on the front line of these conflicts, with classrooms, teachers and pupils seen as legitimate targets. In Afghanistan, at least 613 attacks on schools were recorded in 2009, up from 347 in 2008.

Insurgents in north-western Pakistan have made numerous attacks on girls’ schools, including one in which 95 girls were injured. In north Yemen, 220 schools were destroyed, damaged or looted during fighting in 2009 and 2010 between government and rebel forces.

Armed conflict is also diverting public funds from education into military spending, the report warns. Many of the poorest countries spend significantly more on arms than on basic education. If 21 of these countries were to cut military spending by just ten per cent, they could put 9.5 million more children in school.

Military spending is also diverting the resources of aid donor countries – it would take just six days of military spending by rich countries to close the $16 billion Education for All external financing gap.

Donors’ security agendas have led them to focus on a small group of countries while neglecting many of the world’s poorest countries. Aid for basic education has increased more than fivefold in Afghanistan over the past five years, but it has stagnated or risen more slowly in countries such as Chad and the Central African Republic, and declined in Côte d’Ivoire. Education accounts for just two per cent of humanitarian aid, and only a small fraction of requests for humanitarian aid for education are met.

The report also warns that education failures are fuelling conflict. In many conflict-affected countries, over 60 per cent of the population is aged under 25, but education systems are not providing youth with the skills needed to escape poverty, unemployment and the economic despair that often contributes to violent conflict.


News Tracker: past stories on this issue

UN chief encourages philanthropists to invest more in education

Related Stories





In-depth Interviews