'Deliberate Targets': Violent Attacks on Educators and Students as a Tactic of War

Malala Yousafzai – the Pakistani student who stood up to the Taliban and survived a brutal attack in 2012– became a global symbol of courage and a tenacious spokesperson for children and education around the world. She is however just one of the tens of thousands of children and teachers who have been intentionally targeted with violence, according to a new report by the Global Coalition to Prevent Education from Attack (GCPEA).

Education Under Attack 2014, is the most exhaustive, the most in-depth study to date of targeted attacks on schools and universities, teachers and students,” says Zama Coursen-Neff, chair of the coalition. It identifies 30 countries where there was a clear pattern of these attacks was evident over the the past five years. The documented incidents are not “collateral damage” in war zones or accidents – these are deliberate and planned assaults.

Restricting teacher union activity and academic freedom. Blocking the education of girls. Imposing religious or cultural values. Destroying schools or using them as barracks. The motivations and perpetuators vary but education, says Diya Nijhowne, director of GCPEA, provides irresistible and often defenseless targets.

“Schools, students, and staff are not just caught in the crossfire, but are all too often the targets of attacks. They are bombed, burned, shot, threatened, and abducted precisely because of their connection to education.  They are soft, easy targets, and governments and armed groups need to protect them from being used as a tactic of war,” Nijhowne explains.

The countries most heavily affected during the reporting period of 2009-2013 were Afghanistan, Colombia, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Syria. In Afghanistan, schools were the targets of more than 1,100 attacks, including arson and suicide bombings. School personnel have been continually threatened, killed and kidnapped. One of the most dangerous places to be a teachers is Colombia, where more than 140 educators have been killed, with a thousands more receiving death threats.

Despite the rash of school shootings over the past few years, the United States was not included in the study. These are the acts of lone perpetuators and are not motivated by blocking access to education or suppressing other basic rights. So an incident such as the Sandy Hook shooting, even with its high number of casualties, wasn’t noted.

In addition to the obviously devastating effects acts of violence and intimidation have on the victims and their families, the impact on communities and the effort to build better lives for children are deep and far-reaching.

An attack on a teacher or school undermines “confidence in education systems, traumatizes students, and discourages parents from sending children to school,” says Fred van Leeuwen, general secretary of Education International, who contributed data to the GCPAE report.

Specifically, student absentee and dropout rates increase, the number of qualified and willing teachers is reduced, and basic access to quality education is disrupted – often indefinitely – as school buildings are destroyed outright by attacks, or are seized by armies to be used as barracks.

According to the GCPAE report, “Over the long term, it is reasonable to expect that an undereducated citizenry will be less able to promote open and accountable government, safeguard essential human rights and compete in a global economy.”

“Education Under Attack” does explore ways governments and international institution can protect schools and individuals, including:

  • A stronger commitment to bringing perpetrators of these crimes to justice.
  • Issuing and enforcing new laws and military orders that prohibit use of schools  for military purposes.
  • Strengthening security around school buildings, students and teachers, as well as establishing alternative safe learning spaces. However, the report also notes that, in some instances the presence of armed guards may actually invite, rather than prevent, attacks.
  • Amending some policies and curricula to prevent even the perception that schools are biased against particular ethnic or religious groups, which can provoke violence in many of the profiled countries.