Schools As Battlegrounds

We warn you to leave your job as a teacher as soon as possible otherwise we will cut the heads off your children and shall set fire to your daughter

- Letter to Afghani teacher from Taliban insurgents

These threats, in a letter from Taliban insurgents to an Afghani teacher, are emblematic of the deteriorating situation for teachers and students in many parts of the world. Between March and October 2010, for example, 20 schools in Afghanistan were attacked using explosives or arson, and insurgents killed 126 Afghani students.

These and other atrocities were documented by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a new "school battleground" report, which was released as part of the organization’s annual human rights survey summarizing conditions in more than 90 countries and territories worldwide.

Of countries where attacks upon school buildings, teachers and students occur, Afghanistan probably has the highest profile – students sprayed with gunfire, "girls doused with acid." Nevertheless, the report makes clear that this is a worldwide problem, with attacks on "students, teachers, and schools – and their consequences for education – in Afghanistan, Colombia, the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], India, Nepal, Burma, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Thailand." It further notes that the UN’s Education, Science, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reports that "attacks occurred in at least 31 countries from 2007 to 2009."

Attacks on school facilities can have terrible consequences for children’s education, as frightened parents keep them home and away from classes, which are sometimes conducted out of doors. Even when destroyed facilities are restored, HRW reports, teachers and students remain fearful. In other words, intimidation works.

The reasons for the attacks are as diverse as the countries in which they occur. In Colombia, hundreds of teachers active in their union have been murdered, often by pro-government paramilitary forces. In Thailand, separatists have burned hundreds of schools since 2004 and, last year, government security forces began to occupy schools as military outposts. In India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, "armed opposition groups" have attacked schools used as polling places. In northern Congo, elements of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have "abducted large numbers of children from schools" in villages believed to be helping LRA defectors.

HRW notes that politics, religion, ideological indoctrination, sexual coercion – even simple crime – are all motivations for these attacks. Under international law (namely the Convention of the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights) states are "obligated to make primary education compulsory and available free to all and secondary education available and accessible." Among other requirements, these covenants call for authorities to protect students, teachers and school facilities.

HRW called for action "on three fronts":

  • Stronger monitoring systems;
  • Targeted preventive measures, and more decisive and timely response when incidents do occur;
  • Effective justice mechanisms that hold violators of domestic and international law accountable.
The report also points to the 2010 creation of The Global Coalition for Protecting Education from Attack (GCPEA) as a hopeful sign. The coalition includes the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, Education Above All, Education International, Human Rights Watch, Save the Children International, UNESCO, and UNICEF, the UN Children's Fund. It was formed in order to raise awareness about the scope of attacks on education, the consequences of these attacks, and to mobilize a more effective international response.