It’s Time for Girls to Take Back Their Schools

When seventeen-year old Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize, she became the first child ever to receive the award. In May, only five months after that historic moment, two important events aided the cause for which she was recognized—the right of all children to education.

On May 12, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack launched Lessons in War 2015: Military Use of Schools and Other Education Institutions during Conflict, a report with cutting-edge analysis about the global problem of armed forces using education institutions during armed conflict. Two weeks later, on May 28-29, representatives from countries from around the world gathered in Oslo, Norway, to respond to those findings by endorsing a Safe Schools Declaration. Their endorsement signaled their commitment to protect education from attack and, importantly, to use new international Guidelines for the Protection of Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.

In her 2013 autobiography, Malala Yousafzai describes discovering that a school run by her father had been used as a military base by Pakistani government forces while she and her family were displaced by the fighting in and around her hometown. “I felt sorry that our precious school had become a battlefield,” she lamented.

When I worked for the Qatar-based Education Above All Foundation (EAA), I met with representative from the ministries of foreign affairs, defense, education, and the armed forces of 18 countries. These countries contributed to the drafting of these new Guidelines, which address the problem of government armed forces and non-state armed groups using schools and universities for military purposes during times of armed conflict.

These countries took an interest in this issue because of early research presented to them by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, of which EAA is a member. Now, three years later, that early research has been significantly updated and expanded. On May 12, its findings were formally presented in Geneva at a panel discussion attended by representatives of twenty-one states as well as members of civil society.

The report documents how, in the vast majority of conflicts around the world, schools are converted into barracks, logistics bases, operational headquarters, weapons and ammunition caches, detention and interrogation centers, firing and observation positions, and recruitment grounds. The study reveals that schools and universities have been used for military purposes by armed groups, regular armies, multinational forces and even peacekeepers in at least 26 countries with armed conflict since 2005. Snipers have been positioned at classroom windows, concrete fortresses have been erected on school roofs, razor wire has been fixed around playgrounds, sandbags have been used to block school gates, schoolyards have been used to park armored vehicles in, and soldiers have slept in children’s classrooms.

The practice of using schools for military purposes endangers students and teachers by turning their schools into targets for enemy attack, and students and teachers have been injured and killed in such attacks. The report also documents how this under-reported, yet gravely problematic, tactic affects girls’ right to education. The presence of military actors and the shift in gender balance often discourage parents from sending their girls to school. Parents fear their daughters becoming victims of gender and sexual based violence or being subject to sexual harassment.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women agrees. It recently called upon India to “prohibit the occupation of schools by security forces in conflict-affected regions,” citing “that girls are subjected to sexual harassment and violence, including in conflict-affected regions where the reported occupations of schools by the security forces contributed to girls dropping out of school.”

Here are a few more examples: Families from a village in the Central African Republic, stopped sending girls to the local school for fear of sexual violence by armed forces occupying the school. At a school in India, the presence of just 10 paramilitary police officers prevented the school from opening a previously approved residential hostel for 200 disadvantaged girls. Because students would remain overnight on the campus with the police, parents refused to register their daughters for fear of sexual misconduct. When soldiers used Asal Haddah School, in Sanaa, Yemen, they displaced more than 1,000 girls. Three hundred were sent to Asal al-Wadi School, attended by approximately 800 boys. The school administration shortened study sessions by one class and an hour each day for the girls displaced into the new school, so as to avoid mingling between the boys and girls when leaving school. Teachers also did not allow the girls out of the classrooms during breaks for fear of them interacting with the boys.

As girls become older, separate latrine facilities in schools are essential: without access to proper toilets, girls who are menstruating may stop attending school, especially at the secondary level. Armed forces have often kept school toilets and sanitation facilities for their own use, thus discouraging school attendance by girls.

Of course, international humanitarian law already requires parties to armed conflicts to spare civilians as much as possible the hazards of war and guarantees the proper working of education institutions and students’ right to education. But there is a lack of explicit standards or norms protecting schools from use in support of the military effort.

The Guidelines are the result of a three-year international consultation between military, diplomatic, education, and children’s rights experts. The Guidelines do not intend to change international law, but reflect existing obligations under both international humanitarian law and human rights law, as well as existing examples of good practice by armed forces and armed groups. However, they do provide more protection than the current legal regime offers.

Armed forces and non-state armed groups are encouraged to implement the Guidelines’ protections into their own domestic military doctrine, policy, and trainings. This repeats the call of the UN Security Council, which, in 2014, encouraged all member states to “consider concrete measures to deter the use of schools by armed forces and armed non-State groups in contravention of applicable international law.”

On May 28-29, government representatives from the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Asia gathered in Oslo to endorse a Safe Schools Declaration. Thirty-seven countries signed the Declaration, including Afghanistan, Argentina, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Nigeria, the Netherlands, Poland, Qatar, South Africa, Spain and Switzerland. By joining the Declaration, these countries agree to implement the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.  The Declaration also requires countries to record casualties from attacks on education, assist victims, and support humanitarian programming that promotes the continuation of education during armed conflict.

The countries supporting the Safe Schools Declaration see it as the beginning of a process to strengthen the protection of education and have committed to meet regularly to review progress. The group said the Declaration is still open to countries that have not yet joined.

Fittingly, among those at the Oslo meeting was Ziauddin Yousafzai, the UN special adviser on global education, and Malala’s father and teacher. He applauded the countries that attended the conference. He praised these countries for placing education ahead of violence, hope ahead of despair. Individuals and groups committed to ensuring girls’ safe access to a quality education should seize this opportunity to continue to advocate for girls’ rights to reclaim their schools.

Courtney Erwin, JD, and current PhD student in International and Comparative Law.