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Children’s education: the silent victim of Mideast war

Education is tragically one of those aspects of life that takes secondary priority at times of conflict.

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Wars hit the most vulnerable in society the hardest, and the conflicts of the Middle East and North Africa are no exception to this rule.

Of particular concern is the impact of ongoing conflict in the region on youth, especially young children. In the last few years many thousands of young people have been killed, severely injured, or forced out of their homes in places like Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Yemen and Sudan. Others had to face traumatic realities of losing loved ones or becoming refugees in their formative years, which are so crucial for their physical and psychological development.

Education is tragically one of these aspects of life that takes secondary priority at times of conflict.

Yossi Mekelberg

In time of war the immediate physical survival takes ultimate precedence over long term considerations. Education is tragically one of these aspects of life that takes secondary priority at times of conflict. Consequently the future of millions of young people is compromised for the rest of their lives and this results in unmeasurable harm to their societies.

Impact of war

A recent report by United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), sheds light on the impact of wars in the MENA region and depriving children of adequate schooling. According to the report, 13 million children are not currently attending school in countries in the region affected by armed conflicts.

In Gaza many schools are also used as shelters, following the destruction of many homes in the 2014 conflict with Israel.

Yossi Mekelberg

The report depicts an extremely grim situation of “8850 schools in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya that can no longer be used because they have been damaged destroyed, are sheltering displaced families or are occupied by parties to the conflicts.”

In Gaza many schools are also used as shelters, following the destruction of many homes in the 2014 conflict with Israel. The Middle East and North Africa has a very young population. One third of people living there are under the age of 15, and another thirty percent are between the ages of 15 and 29. This large proportion of the population is the one that is most affected when access to education is blocked, or not up to acceptable standards. It makes it even worse considering that prior to the beginning of the Arab Spring, the region was heading towards the goal of universal education for both girls and boys.

Long term prospects

The impact of not attending school for these millions of children has a detrimental and immediate impact on their lives, and also on their long term prospects. As a consequence of the complete destruction of the world surrounding them, these young people need some source of stability and hope. Schools could and should have served this function, but not when they are under constant attack.

In areas under ISIS control, for instance, the curriculum is being changed, while girls are forced to marry and stop their schooling. Many schools have lost their teachers, who were killed or fled in fear of their lives. Provisions for disabled school children are dwindling at a time when the horrors of war mean they are needed the most. This 13 million children, who could have received emotional support, time away from the daily misery and most importantly hope for a better future, find themselves wandering around in devastated cities and makeshift refugee camps. Their vulnerability makes them easy prey to those who want to exploit or radicalize them.

Schools perceived as a luxury

All evidence points to education as one of the key factors in advancing social mobility, improving employment, decreasing inequality in society and generally ensuring good citizenship. The most valuable capital that countries have is their human capital, and this asset is enhanced by education. However, when young children do not have the opportunity to develop literacy and numeracy skills, they are disadvantaged for the rest of their lives, and cannot contribute to the advancement of a more technologically savvy and innovative dynamic economy. Right now their families’ primary concern, and understandably so, is their physical survival; schools may almost be perceived as a luxury.

Nevertheless, a generation of children that grows up outside schools, is a generation that is lost to society. As the report asserts, “In the midst of violence and instability, school is a place of learning and opportunity, a sanctuary for healing and health.” This is what these young people are missing. Worse, some of the schools are occupied or surrounded by armed forces, which makes it at many times a dangerous and a terrifying place for children. In countries such as Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey, the governments are making a genuine and generous effort to enable children to attend schools; however, language and cultural barriers are a real obstacle to success for these school-age children. In some places they face a ghastly combination of physical abuse, bullying and bad nutrition, all of which affect their academic performance.

Since no one expects respite in the political strife in the region, it is paramount that the international community takes urgent measures to ensure that these children are back in the classroom. It is not only the responsibility of the countries in the region, but of the wider international community. It requires the creation of a safe environment for learning and the allocation of necessary resources. This can be done through cooperation with NGOs and international organisations that are familiar with the situation and present on the ground. They can assist in providing formal and informal education, in addition to training of teachers. This issue must be tackled with a sense of urgency and purpose, as many of these young people will lose the opportunity to become the accomplished individuals and citizens which they could be. This would not only result in a personal tragedy for them, but would also come back to haunt their societies, and beyond.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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