Hundreds of parents have been marching with placards demanding “Find our Daughters” in Nigeria, where over 200 girls were abducted by an Islamist armed group in late April. Many schools had been shut down because of repeated attacks by Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is forbidden.” In a cruel twist of fate, the school where the girls were abducted had been reopened only so that they could take their final exams.
This mass abduction—latest estimates are that 276 girls are still missing—is one of the most extreme examples of attacks on students, teachers, and schools in recent years. But such attacks are by no means uncommon, or limited to Nigeria. In the last five years, 30 countries have experienced a pattern of intentional attacks on education. Schools and universities have been bombed and burned, and students, teachers and school officials killed, maimed, raped, forcibly recruited by armed groups, and extorted precisely because of their connection to education. Malala Yousafzai, shot by the Pakistani Taliban when she was 15 because she championed girls’ education, is perhaps the best-known case.
Even the abduction of students from schools is not uncommon. Somali students told Human Rights Watch that militant Islamist Al-Shabaab fighters took 14- and 15-year-old girls at gunpoint from their schools for forced marriage to fighters. One student saw fighters shoot a girl in front of her class when she resisted. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, followers of a rebel group led by war crimes suspect Bosco Ntaganda, who later surrendered to face charges before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, raided a secondary school in North Kivu in April 2012, seizing 32 boys. Soldiers tied their hands and marched them off the school grounds to a military camp to be trained as fighters, threatening to kill them if they tried to escape.
The targeted killing and maiming of school children and college students is a crime and an unspeakable atrocity. Such attacks inflict severe psychological distress on both students and teachers and cause interruptions in education that may take years or even a lifetime to reverse.
In addition, attacks destroy infrastructure in places where resources are already scarce, and waste the money invested in education by governments and the international community, jeopardizing a society’s economic and social development.
Some modest progress has been made to address attacks on education. Four years ago, a group of nongovernmental organizations and three United Nations agencies founded the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack to draw attention to the crisis and press for a stronger international response.
The UN is now specifically tracking attacks on schools and teachers, and the related problem of the use of schools by national armed forces and armed groups for bases, barracks, weapons caches, detention centers and even torture chambers, placing the school at risk of attack by opposing forces. The armed forces and groups identified may face UN Security Council sanctions. In March, at a Security Council debate on children and armed conflict, 35 countries spoke up about school attacks and military use of schools.
The Global Partnership for Education (GPE) issued a board decision in February condemning school attacks in Nigeria and making a commitment to support the Coalition in achieving its goals of better monitoring and reporting, more effective programs and policy to protect education from attack, adherence to existing international law protecting education, and accountability. The Global Partnership funds and supports education in its 60 low-income member countries. Its other members include donors, the UN and World Bank, nongovernmental organizations, teachers, and the private sector.
In response to the abductions in Nigeria, Gordon Brown, the UN special envoy for global education, said, “There should be no question in the modern world that when a boy or girl goes to school that they should feel, and their parents should feel, that they will be safe and secure in that environment.” He said that, “We need to devise a plan…and the plan must include greater safety for schools.”
Hundreds of thousands of people have signed a petition backing calls for more to be done to #BringBackOurGirls. As the world begins to wake up to the human cost of the conflict in Nigeria, the Nigerian government and the international community can do more to prevent and respond to attacks.
The Nigerian government should provide additional protection to schools and colleges at risk of attack and take steps to mitigate the impact of attacks on children’s right to education. Taking into consideration different risks faced by boys and girls, this could include: additional physical protection, reinforcement of school infrastructure, student or teacher housing and alternative transportation or escorts. Additional measures are community involvement in protection, including community-based protection committees, school-based protection committees, school management committees, community involvement in peace building, or involvement of religious leaders.
In addition, the government could create a rapid response system so that when schools are attacked, they are quickly repaired or rebuilt, and destroyed education material is replaced. A senior official could be designated in each state affected by Boko Haram attacks to oversee the rapid response system and ensure that education is made available at alternative locations until schools are rebuilt and secure conditions ensured.
More broadly, the government should ensure, including with budget allocations, that the right to education without discrimination becomes a reality for all Nigerians.
The government should also do all it can to investigate and bring to justice Boko Haram leaders for the group’s killings, kidnappings, pillaging, and abductions, which have characterized the violence in the northeast. It should also ensure that any response by security forces to these abductions protects civilians, and hold all those complicit in abuses to account.
The international community should use every opportunity to advance these recommendations. While Boko Haram itself has shown little indication that it is responsive to outside pressure, an international panel of experts could be appointed to identify the group’s sources of revenue and pressure them.
This is a call to action. With the world’s attention turned to the dire predicament of hundreds of captured Nigerian girls and young women, the international community must step up to ensure that schools are taken out of the battlefield and treated as sanctuaries where all children can learn, protected from the ravages of war.
Zama Coursen-Neff directs the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch and chairs the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack. Diya Nijhowne is the Coalition’s director.