Waging a War with Books and Pens: The Fight for Childhood Education
In an act that is increasingly being talked about around the world, Malala Yousafzai spent her 16th birthday at the United Nations demanding compulsory education for young people worldwide. Malala, a Pakistani schoolgirl, was shot in the head in October 2012 while speaking out for her right to education. At the UN, she spoke about how she represents the 57 million children around the world who are not going to school. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Save the Children report that this 57 million is down from the 60 million children out of school in 2008. But during this period, the percentage of youth in conflict-affected areas who are not attending primary school has risen from 42% to 50%.
Currently, the eyes of peacemakers and citizens around the world are focused on the ongoing crisis in Syria. In the two and a half years that Syria has been facing disaster, 3,900 schools have been destroyed, damaged, or are occupied for non-educational purposes. As conflict in Syria began to intensify, schools began to lose their image as safe havens. Parents all across Syria withdrew their children, fearing the schools would be a target. Barely a few months later, the violence barged through the doors of the learning centers. One nine year old boy in Syria said, “In our school they aimed weapons towards us, and when they hit the school it destroyed half the building…I saw it on fire.”
More and more children abandoned the places they once went to feel empowered and get educated. Schools became non-functional because fighters from both sides made them unsafe. Although fighters in Syria appear to disregard international law, the non-functional status of the schools allows the abandoned buildings to become legitimate military targets. Armies moved into the schools and became a base for fighting. Schools, of course, are primarily located in the middle of high-density civilian areas.
Save the Children also reports that schools have a darker purpose than just combat. One 15 year old boy said that men came to his village and took him to jail. “Except it wasn’t a jail,” he said. “It was my old school. They made it into a torture center and took me there to torture me, in the same place I used to go to learn. When I realized…I was so sad, I wanted to cry.” The boy was tortured for 10 days.
The struggle for education, like the fighting itself, is not contained inside the borders of Syria. 1.6 million school-aged children are currently refugees, receiving little to no education. Dani al-Betar began a school for Syrian refugees in Antakya, Turkey. When she started it in 2011, she had 16 students. Today, she has more than 1,600. The school is merely a concrete building that was never intended to be a school. When it rains, the dirt courtyard floods and turns to mud. Very few donors have helped to fund the school. The teachers and staff members are volunteers, rarely getting paid. There is not enough money for basic school supplies such as pencils and paper. This makeshift school is only one of dozens that span the Turkish border, and one of hundreds across the region. While the education system inside Syria has totally collapsed, the undersupplied, under staffed temporary schools for refugees are struggling every day to continue to educate children. Host governments have been welcoming fleeing children into their schools, but the burden on local schools has become too much as the numbers of refugees has continued to rise. As education only receives 1.4% of the global financing for humanitarian organizations, there is little evidence that emergency schools will be supported in the ongoing crisis.
Syria is a prime example of the obstacles that prevent young children in conflict affected areas from attending school. But it is far from the only one. In Mali, one boy spoke of the day rebels came to destroy his school and all the student’s papers. In the Central African Republic, at least 650,000 children are being denied education. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 30% of children aged 5-17 are out of school and nearly 600 schools have been damaged or destroyed by the violence. Around the world, education is being attacked.
Amidst these violent crises it can be easy for donors and international actors to forget the importance of education. When people’s lives are at risk, the need for food, water, and shelter, can overshadow the need for education. But lack of education is the root of such violent conflicts and the vulnerability of civilians. Quality education is the key to strength and growth.
The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) believes that education is an essential component for countries after a crisis: “Education is not only a basic human right; it is a tool for recovery.” Education is of vital importance to human development. It helps to solve problems across every sector: economic, gender equality, child mortality, health, and environmental sustainability. The UN reports that one extra year of schooling increases a person’s earnings by up to ten percent. If all students in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty.
Moreover, in terms of child mortality, a child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to live past the age of five. On the health front, in Indonesia, when mothers have no education, child vaccination rates are 19 percent. When mothers have at least secondary education, child vaccination rates are 68 percent. Because it helps to solve these problems (and many more), education is a key part in global development, inside or outside of a conflict zone.
The benefits of education are undisputable. And the lack of access to education in many parts of the world is undisputable. This is clearly a problem that needs a solution. When UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon introduced Malala to the youth assembly, he said, “By targeting Malala, extremists showed what they feared the most: a girl with a book.” During her speech, Malala explained that even if she had had a gun in her hand when the Taliban man was standing in front of her, she would not have shot him. Instead, she said that she wants to educate the sons and the daughters of the Taliban and all other extremists and terrorists. As a 16 year old girl, Malala recognizes what many adults fail to recognize: “So let us wage, so let us wage a glorious struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism, let us pick up our books and our pens, they are the most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first.”