UN urges warring parties to end school attacks, especially in Africa

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The UN Security Council on Thursday urged warring parties in all conflicts to immediately stop attacking schools and teachers and reaffirmed Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ call for global cease-fires to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

A presidential statement approved by all 15 council members expressed “grave concern about the significant increase of attacks on schools in recent years and the resulting alarming number of children denied access to quality education.”

The U.N. envoy for children in conflict told the council that attacking schools and teachers seems to be an emerging tactic of war, particularly in Africa’s Sahel region, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made things worse.

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Virginia Gamba said that in the Sahel, “schools are targeted precisely because they are schools, and even more if they cater to girls.”

In Mali, for example, she said that in the last two years teachers were threatened and killed, education facilities demolished, and learning materials burned, leading to the closure of over 1,260 schools, even before COVID-19.

Similarly, the last 12 months in Burkina Faso have seen increasing attacks, including the burning of schools and kidnapping of teachers, forcing 2,500 schools to shut down and depriving hundreds of thousands of children from education, Gamba said.

Elsewhere in the world, especially in Asia and Latin America, she said, “we are also seeing an increase in attacks to education in indigenous communities.”

Gamba said legislation adopted by some conflict-affected countries including the Philippines, Myanmar and the Central African Republic that protects schools from attack and criminalizes violations is still at the early stages of implementation, and more needs to be done to speed delivery.

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She said the COVID-19 pandemic has made things worse because closed schools and crumbling economies favor the recruitment and use of child soldiers, sexual exploitation of children, and child marriage – and the use of empty schools for military purposes.

The Security Council statement, sponsored by Niger, reaffirmed Gamba’s appeal “to preserve and respect the civilian character of schools, as necessary for the protection of children in armed conflict.”

It also acknowledged “the disproportionate negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” especially its economic impact and adverse effects on children in conflict and undergoing reintegration into society.

The council noted “the heightened risk for children in armed conflict, of not resuming their education following school closures, particularly girls.” This makes them “more vulnerable to child labor, child recruitment as well as forced marriage,” the council said, urging countries “to ensure access to quality education for all.”

Henrietta Fore, head of UNICEF, welcomed the statement, saying “protecting schools from attack, and providing education in the midst of emergencies, is more than a humanitarian need.”

“It is a moral obligation to children and communities alike,” she said. But “it is clearly a moral obligation that we are failing to meet” because millions of children aren’t getting an education.

“COVID-19 has disrupted learning for over one billion children worldwide,” Fore said. “At the same time, we must remember those who have no education waiting for them, including many of the 75 million children who live in countries in conflict.”

As many schools around the world prepare to open this week in the midst of the pandemic, she said it’s important to shine a light on places where going to school can be dangerous and even deadly. She cited 494 attacks on schools last year, 20 percent of them in west and central Africa including the Sahel.

Fore urged the Security Council to regularly discuss education under attack because “the security of countries and our world is directly tied to the education and protection of the children within these countries.”

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