Attacks on education increased worldwide during pandemic

published 2 June 2022 updated 2 June 2022

Education International is deeply saddened after the release of the latest report published by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) indicating that over 9,000 students, teachers, and academics were harmed, injured, or killed in attacks on education during armed conflict over the past two years. It reiterates that schools must be safe spaces all over the world.

The 265-page report published on June 1st also mentions that more than 5,000 separate attacks on education facilities, students and educators, or incidents of military use, took place in 2020 and 2021, a significant increase over the previous two years. Researchers for Education under Attack 2022 indeed found that the number of attacks on education and military use of schools increased from 2019 to 2020 by one-third, and continued at this heightened rate in 2021, even as schools and universities around the world closed for prolonged periods during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stop using schools and universities for military purposes

“It is crucial for governments and armed groups to end attacks on education, and stop using schools and universities for military purposes,” said Diya Nijhowne, GCPEA executive director. “Governments should investigate attacks and prosecute those responsible for abuses. In post-COVID-19 ‘back to school’ campaigns, they need to fully integrate students affected by attacks, expanding alternative education programs developed during the pandemic as necessary.”

Attacks on education involve armed forces and non-state armed groups bombing and burning schools and universities, and killing, injuring, raping, abducting, arbitrarily arresting, and recruiting students and educators at or near educational institutions, during armed conflict. In addition to the deaths and injuries caused by these attacks, destroyed and occupied schools upend learning, sometimes permanently, and have long-term social and economic consequences.

The COVID-19 pandemic did not slow attacks on education

The COVID-19 pandemic did not slow attacks on education. In fact, some violations became more prominent in 2020 and 2021. Armed forces and non-state armed groups took advantage of vacant schools to use them for military purposes, including in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sudan, and Syria. Elsewhere, the police responded with excessive force to students’ and educators’ protests over policies related to the closure or re-opening of schools and universities during the pandemic, including using water cannons and teargas. In other countries, such as Colombia and Palestine, after lockdown measures were lifted, schools that had sustained damage during attacks experienced delayed re-openings, or reopened with damaged facilities.

Seventh anniversary of the Safe Schools Declaration

This report was released on the seventh anniversary of the Safe Schools Declaration, a political commitment to protect education in armed conflict, endorsed by 114 countries. By joining the Declaration, countries commit to taking concrete steps to safeguard education, including by using the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use During Armed Conflict. Since the Declaration was opened for endorsement in 2015, governments and their partners have made tangible improvements in law and practice to protect education from attack. Over one-third of the countries profiled in the report are not signatories.

Education International’s Resolution on “Attacks on Schools in Africa”

The global education union community has been committed for many years to eradicate violence in educational settings, at all levels, around the world.

During the 2019 Education International’s World Congress, delegates adopted a resolution on attacks in Africa, noting that persistent terrorist attacks in Africa, notably in the Horn of Africa, including Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia and Sudan, and particularly in the Sahelo-Saharan region of Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Mali, Niger and Nigeria, are constantly growing, expanding to neighbouring countries such as Benin, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and raising serious concerns. They also deplored that “schools have become specific targets of violent attacks whereby students and their educators are killed, thus leading to the closure of hundreds of schools and an increase in the number of school dropouts”.

They further warned that, “without access to education, a generation of children living in conflict areas will grow up without the skills needed to contribute to the development of their countries and economies, thereby exacerbating the already desperate situation of millions of children and their families in the region, as well as preventing them from accessing decent employment when they reach adult age”.

The resolution therefore reasserts, among other, that:

  • Education is a basic human right and a public good. All children have a right to free, inclusive and equitable quality public education regardless of where they live. However, many children in Africa do not have access to education because of attacks on education;
  • A child’s right to education cannot be safeguarded or protected in conflict zones without education itself being protected; and
  • Schools should be safe sanctuaries providing a safe space where children can be protected from threats and crises.

Education International’s Declaration on “Schools as Safe Sanctuaries”

In 2009, Education International adopted a Declaration on “Schools as Safe Sanctuaries”, voicing “the collective demand by teachers and their unions worldwide that the international community take action to ensure that education is both protected in conflicts and enabled to realise its potential as a force for peace in the world”.

Therefore, in this document, Education International urges the international community to reverse the alarming growth in recent years in the number of violence political and military attacks worldwide against students, teachers, education unionists and education officials, and against education institutions.

It acknowledges that “it is essential that school systems and individual schools are run in a way that promote tolerance, understanding, respect of diverse cultures and religions, and conflict resolution in line with the 1966 ILO/UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Teachers. This would enable them to become zones of peace, actively contributing to the easing of tension, and encourage recognition and respect of places of learning as safe sanctuaries that should not be targeted.”

Education International also calls on the international community, governments and human rights organisations to:

  1. Reaffirm the commitment to the principle of the right to education in safety
  2. Take practical measures to ensure protection
  3. End impunity for attacks on students, teachers, academics, all other education personnel and education facilities
  4. Strengthen monitoring of attacks and efforts to end impunity
  5. Prioritise action and share expertise on resilience and recovery
  6. Make education an agent for peace