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The Right to Safe Schools

LONDON – It is relentless. This week, there were two more attacks on schoolchildren both in Afghanistan, one at a girls’ school, where staff were bludgeoned and bombs set off, and the other at a neighboring boys’ school, where a classroom was sprayed with bullets.

The number of casualties in both assaults remains unknown. But the cause is all too well known: There is a war against education.

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More than 28 million out-of-school children are growing up in conflict zones, including places like the Afghan-Pakistan border, the fringes of Myanmar, and South Sudan. All of them are vulnerable to extremist violence.

Schools should be as safe as hospitals bearing a red cross, or as buildings and vehicles that bear the United Nations’ blue symbol. Yet they are not.

One way to give schools this status is to define attacks on children and teachers in classrooms as crimes against humanity. Schools already have the same legal status as hospitals under international law; they should also be subject to agreements that guarantee that they are never used as instruments of war, as many of them have become.

A new report by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Office has highlighted 70 countries where girls have faced threats, intimidation, violent attacks, and other abuses during the last five years simply for trying to go to school. “Attacks against girls accessing education,” the paper states, “persist and, alarmingly, appear in some countries to be occurring with increasing regularity.”

The latest figures are terrifying – and are only the tip of the iceberg. Starting in 2010, when the Somali extremist group Al-Shabaab abducted girls from their school, the UN Human Rights Commissioner has charted nearly 10,000 attacks on schools and colleges.

In 2012 alone, there were 3,600 separate attacks against educational institutions, teachers, and schools. And the report warns of “a ripple effect”; aside from the direct effect on victims and their communities, such attacks “send a signal to other parents and guardians that schools are not safe places.” As a result, girls and boys, fearful of attacks, are now refusing to go to school, and parents, worried that their children are no longer safe there, are refusing to send them. But, out of school, girls, in particular, are far more vulnerable to being exploited, sold into slavery, or abused.

The UN report rightly tracks the violence against schoolgirls to broader concerns about violence and discrimination against women and girls globally. It calls for proper enforcement of laws that protect girls and women, and for action to be taken against rape, trafficking, and slave-labor conditions.

But it also calls for measures to reassure parents and pupils that everything is being done to counter extremist threats and make schools safer. We must support the efforts of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, which is advocating for the adoption of the “Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use” as a “safe schools” declaration by this summer. Governments must ensure that measures for safe schools are in place wherever schoolchildren are vulnerable to attack.

I helped launch the first Safe Schools Initiative, following Boko Haram’s abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria, last April. A fund has so far mobilized $30 million from businesses, the Nigerian government, and international donors, and a multi-donor trust fund has been established at the UN.

Nigeria’s initiative focuses on school and community interventions, with special measures for the most at-risk and vulnerable children. The agenda includes building better school fortifications, linking schools to police stations by mobile telecommunications, and creating community security groups – consisting of teachers, parents, police, community leaders, and young people themselves – to promote safe zones for education.

The first set of schools has now received funding, and the first cohort of the most at-risk girls has been relocated to government schools in safer regions of the country.

Next on the Safe Schools priority list will be Pakistan, where a new plan will be unveiled later this week. Following December’s attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar – one of the worst school atrocities of all time – Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and I spoke at length and agreed that every effort should be made to keep schools safe and open for girls and boys. Businesses, foundations, and aid agencies are being asked to support the Safe Schools effort in Pakistan.

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Those who murder or abduct schoolchildren are committing a heinous crime, and perpetrators should know that international authorities will punish them. Even in the world’s most dangerous places, we must establish the right of all children to schooling and make the idea of “education without borders” a reality.

Parents and pupils worldwide need to be reassured that everything is being done to secure schools’ safety, so that in the coming years, girls, in particular, can study without fear. Like all basic human rights, the right to attend school is one that the entire world should strive to uphold.