This blog appeared first on the World Economic Forum’s blog site.
The Peshawar school massacre that left 132 children and nine school staff dead is a terrible reminder of the war on education that is being waged throughout the world. We are in a paradoxical time for education: a higher number of children are in class worldwide than ever before and literacy and numeracy are spreading. At the same time, we have a poisonous backlash from conservative forces that see knowledge – particularly the acquisition of knowledge by girls – as a threat to their warped religious visions. They know what we know: that education will give girls more power and opportunities in the world, which is why they will resort to such desperate measures to take it away.
From Boko Haram in Nigeria to the Taliban in Afghanistan to Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, education has been the ground that extremists have chosen to fight on. They sow fear among parents so that they will keep their children away from school. It is an insidious tactic. Which parent wouldn’t think about allowing their child to stay at home if there was a risk that they would be targeted? Through intimidation they can achieve what they can’t achieve through their political support.
The attack in Peshawar is the most brutal manifestation of a trend that has been happening in Pakistan for decades. Teachers have been shot dead, drenched in acid and made afraid to publicly reveal their profession to the world. Between 2009 and 2012 there were approximately 900 militant attacks on schools, according to the Global Coalition to Prevent Education from Attack. Now it is estimated that attacks have exceeded the 1,000 mark. A worrying dimension of the Peshawar attacks is that they were so cavalier, the work of extremists who feel emboldened. Unlike previous attacks, they were committed in full daylight.
These attacks have had dire consequences for education in Pakistan. Attacks on schools alone have disrupted the education of 50,000 directly, without taking into account the number of children deterred from attending by violence. Worse, it’s happening in a place where education is already in crisis. The Pakistani government spends just above two per cent of GDP on education, which is among the lowest of any country in the world. Pakistan has the second highest number of children not attending school in the world – 5.4 million according to UNESCO. Fewer than half of Pakistani girls are estimated to have basic literacy.
Failing to educate the young in a society is to see it wither. Without skills, economic development stalls, inward investment disappears, and those with the skills and opportunity migrate. Even more importantly, the lack of an educated population weakens civil society and makes democracy itself fragile. Informed democratic choices give way to populism and extremism.
Normally, when writing a blog, one would suggest a neat policy agenda that can be followed to address the problem that the writer has outlined. But violence against children going to school isn’t that kind of problem. It can’t be solved simply by a change of policy in the world’s education ministries. The obvious solutions – higher fences, security screening and armed guards – may help, but they are not going to keep children safe from people determined to do them harm. Neither should we want to turn our schools into fortresses.
We need a far deeper change: political leadership that make a secure education for all children the most urgent national priority. India has major weaknesses in its education system – and also has to deal with threats to the education of women – but has developed a new generation of leaders and a robust civil society that understands the urgency of these issues. Indian schools have problems but, mercifully, fear of terrorism is not one of them.
To face down this extremism strong leadership is required, and elites who are emboldened to make wise decisions free from corruption or intimidation. It requires sturdy political institutions that, however imperfectly, represent the will of the people. Overwhelmingly the Pakistani people believe that education for girls is just as important as it is for boys (87% agreed with this statement in a recent Pew Research Center poll), but this is not translating into the political determination to face down those who would burn classrooms and bomb school buses.
There has been no lack of opposition to the war on education. Civil society has teemed with clever photo opportunities, viral marketing campaigns, emotive film-making and celebrity endorsements to champion those who risk their lives simply to go to school. The film Girl Rising – following the stories of girls facing barrier to education around the world became a phenomenon in US schools. The #bringbackourgirls Twitter campaign in response to the Boko Haram abduction of girls from their secondary school dormitories in Nigeria was shared by five million people – including the Obamas, Mary J Blige and Alicia Keys.
Perhaps most impressively of all, the cause of access to education has been gifted a once-in-a-lifetime icon in the shape of the heroic Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban for blogging about her school experiences. She is now as famous as any Hollywood star. Deservedly, she has been showered with accolades for her extraordinary courage and eloquence – from the Nobel Peace Prize downwards – and regularly appears in lists of the world’s most powerful women.
But are these sentiments matched by a will among politicians on the ground to ensure that children are not cowed into staying at home? Though the international community will confer awards and issue strongly worded statements, are we doing enough to support those beleaguered governments?
Too often there is equivocation when facing down those who attack girls and their right to education. In the aftermath of the school attacks, many political, military and religious leaders condemned their brutality but failed to condemn the Taliban at the same time. It is perhaps encouraging that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif promised that the days of distinguishing between “good” and “bad” parts of the Taliban are over. But the verdict is out on whether the Pakistani security services will live up to these commitments.
Perhaps the unique horror of Peshawar will be seen as a turning point where the world summoned the resolve to see safe education as a non-negotiable right. The atrocity has already silenced ancient enmities. In India, there was a two minutes’ silence in every school to remember the dead in Pakistan, something that has never happened before.
How can the international community ensure this moment of collective horror results in change? Firstly, the international community, particularly the EU, provides significant assistance to Pakistan in the form of direct funds and preferential trade status. Further help could be offered that is explicitly tied to progress on the numbers of Pakistani children in school.
Secondly, backing needs to be given to Qatar’s efforts to ensure that the UN gives protected status to schools and places of education. Over the past four years, schools have been targeted in seventy countries around the world. In Syria alone, nearly 3500 schools have been damaged or destroyed during the civil war.
Some of this is collateral damage in war-zones. However, more often attacks on schools have been used a deliberate weapon of war. Killing your enemy’s children is to target what they regard as most precious. We have returned to medieval horrors that we thought we had banished through agreements on the rules of war.
Quite apart from the appalling human toll, the targeting of schools is also jeopardising the international community’s commitment to see all the world’s children in primary education by 2015. As world leaders reflect on their priorities for 2015, there is no more important priority than ensuring that the right of children to attend school safely is brought to the top of the agenda of every international summit next year. Perhaps then, some hope can come from what Kailash Satyarthi, who shared the Nobel prize with Malala, rightly called: “one of the darkest days of humanity”.