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“They came well-armed and told me to stop teaching”

By Agathe Freal

 “Schools make them angry,” explained the director, when describing the day a non-affiliated armed group came to his house in Niger and demanded that he change profession. “They came well-armed,” he said, “and they told me to stop teaching. Luckily, they found me alone although they also wanted to see my colleagues.”

Fearing for his safety, the director requested a transfer to another school.  Responding to that request, the school inspector said:  when someone pulls a gun on you and asks you to close the school, you don’t need anyone’s permission to run away.”

The experience is one of many worldwide and is an attack on education. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) defines attacks on education as any intentional threat or use of force against students, educators and education institutions.

Over 5,000 attacks on education and incidents of military use of school buildings were reported in 2020 and 2021. As a result, at least 9,000 students and educators were harmed, injured, abducted or killed. Schools were looted and burned down, or had to close in the face of threats of violence.

Girls and women were also affected with gender specific attacks on education reported in at least 11 countries in 2020 and 2021. In certain contexts, such as Afghanistan, female students and teachers or their education facilities are targeted in efforts to obstruct their access to education.

The deliberate targeting of education brings dire consequences for communities, where persistent threats to schools, staff and students, limits access to education and damages the future prospects of the young population.

Despite these challenges, communities value education as a solution to keep children out of trouble, with the hope that things could change in the future. When children can go to school, they are protected from many risks that conflict presents, such as recruitment into armed groups, child marriage, and gender-based violence.  This is something that Concern Worldwide has witnessed first hand while supporting education in countries like Ethiopia where the attacks on education have increased over the past three years.

For families forced to flee their homes, continued education provides a sense of safety and reduces the long-term impacts of displacement. Conversely, when education is attacked, students, teachers, and their families face stress and trauma, in addition to threats to their lives and livelihoods.

Protection of the right to education ensures that children and young people have the opportunity to develop their talents and capacities, opening up opportunities for their future.

This is one of many reasons that the Irish Forum for Global Education (IFGE) is committed to raising awareness of the need to protect students and educators and ensuring that pursuing an education does not put their lives at risk.

Every year since 2020, the United Nations marks September 9 as the International Day to Protect Education from Attack, reflecting the global nature of this problem and showing support for educators and children in over 85 countries who do not have a safe access to education.

One global effort to improve protection of education, led by Argentina and Norway, is the Safe Schools Declaration, a political declaration through which governments express their commitment to prevent attacks on education and military use of schools and universities.

Ireland was among the first group of states to endorse this declaration, which now has 118 state signatures, or nearly two-thirds of United Nations members. Ireland was also a member of the UN Security Council in 2021 and voted to adopt Resolution 2601, which addresses the protection of children and facilitates the protection of education in armed conflict.

Ireland’s support for these initiatives is unsurprising, given its longstanding support for education in countries affected by conflict and insecurity through Overseas Development Aid.

But there are further steps that Ireland can take to show its support for students and teachers worldwide that face unacceptable risks. For example, Norway has established an implementation network where states that have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration gather to exchange expertise and seek solutions. Ireland could become an active member of this network, and support countries affected by conflict to do the same.

In addition, as a significant contributor to UN peacekeeping missions, Ireland could encourage the Department of Peace Operations to ensure that protection of education is a central element of any peacekeeping mission. This would build on successes of the past, for example, when a UN peacekeeping force in the Central African Republic was able to drive armed groups from a number of schools and return the buildings to their intended purpose.

On this International Day to Protect Education from Attack, I join my colleagues in the IFGE to confirm our support for students and teachers around the world that face threats and attacks because they want education. Education is a right, and one that must be protected.

Agathe Freal is an Education Advisor with Concern Worldwide writing for the Irish Forum for Global Education