August 21, 2019

Education can help to bring peace in Afghanistan - but not while schools are still under attack

May children in Afghanistan are out of school - and those who are in education often have to face dangers

Photo credit: OCHA

Theirworld's #WriteTheWrong campaign is calling for increased funding to deliver education for millions of children caught up in conflicts.

Education has been under attack in Afghanistan for years. Despite claims of progress in the ongoing peace talks, children continue to bear the brunt of violence and intimidation.

Last month was brutal, even by the standards of this long-running conflict. Many schoolchildren were among the 14 killed and 200 injured by a Taliban car bomb in Ghazni city. That attack came just days after at least 50 students were wounded by flying glass from an explosion near a primary school in Kabul.

Teenager Madina still has nightmares about that day. Two huge blasts tore through her school in the capital, leaving her with lacerations to her arms and legs. 

"It was a scary day. I still have nightmares, I cannot focus. It was very hard to prepare for exams," said the 16-year-old. She did her mathematics exam in a corridor because parts of the school are unsafe after the blast.

Like many of the victims, Madina's wounds are healing - but she has been left mentally scarred too.

"In the first few days after the attack, you could see the trauma on students' faces. They would cry every minute," said school director Niamatullah Hamdard.

More than 3.7 million children, including 2.2 million girls, are still denied an education in Afghanistan

Photo credit: Becky Bakr Abdulla / NRC

Attacks on schools in Afghanistan tripled last year. By December, more than 1,000 schools were shut by the conflict, leaving about 500,000 children out of school.

Afghan children are not alone in experiencing attacks on education. Theirworld's report Safe Schools: The Hidden Crisis revealed that between 2013 and 2017 there were more than 12,700 attacks on schools, harming more than 21,000 students, teachers and staff in at least 70 countries.

Theirworld's #WriteTheWrong campaign is about getting every child in the world into safe schools. That includes 75 million who currently have their education interrupted by conflicts and emergencies.

#WriteTheWrong calls for donors and world leaders to rally round and ensure Education Cannot Wait is fully financed. The world's first fund for education in emergencies, launched in 2016, needs $1.8 billion to reach nine million children annually by 2021. 

The programmes would be in at least 25 countries affected by long-running crises, including Afghanistan. 


Safe Schools: The Hidden Crisis (December 2018)

A framework for action to deliver Safe, Non-violent, Inclusive and Effective Learning Environments

"Education is an essential building block in Afghanistan’s progress toward peace, security and sustainable economic development," said Education Cannot Wait Director Yasmine Sherif. 

"Education brings empowerment and enlightenment. We can’t afford to lose another generation to war, conflict and displacement."

The United Nations said 2018 was the deadliest on record in Afghanistan, with at least 3,804 civilian deaths caused by the war - including 927 children. In the first six months of 2019, children accounted for nearly a third of civilian casualties.

The Taliban - who for years waged a violent campaign against girls' education - and the United States are trying to negotiate an agreement on the withdrawal of American forces. That would be in exchange for a commitment on security and peace talks with the Afghan government.

But the violence shows no sign of slowing - and there are other factors beyond the Taliban. An Islamic State suicide bomber killed 80 people and wounded more than 160 in an attack on a wedding reception in Kabul on Saturday. 

The number of out-of-school children and targeted attacks are rising in Afghanistan

Photo credit: GCPEA

In the Deh Bala district of Nangarhar province, the Papen high school was recently reduced to rubble amid fighting between government forces and Islamic State. 

"When the students go to sleep at night, they dream about Daesh and they are haunted by atrocities," school director Muhamad Wali told the AFP news agency, using the local name for Islamic State.

"They scream in their sleep - and when they come here they are so stressed out."

Amir Gul, 15, said he and his Papen classmates are constantly anxious, adding: "We are always afraid a bomb might go off. Everyone is scared and no one can study."

Schools should be safe places where children can learn and be with their peers. The Safe Schools Declaration - a promise to keep schools free from attacks and military occupation - has now been signed by 95 countries.

Millions of children across the world miss out on school as a result of conflicts

Photo credit: UNICEF

But in July alone - as well as the Afghanistan bombings - Insecurity Insight's monthly briefing reported that attacks on education included:

  • Burkina Faso - five schools burned down in Yagha province. 
  • Central African Republic - school director murdered in Bouar state. 
  • South Sudan - six students abducted and country education director killed in Amadi state. 
  • Sudan - five high school students shot dead during a protest and four children killed by an artillery shell hitting a school in Central Darfur. 
  • Syria - several schools in different regions damaged by airstrikes. Philippines - school principal shot dead in Negros Oriental province. 
  • Ukraine - several schools damaged by gunfire and shrapnel.

Psychotherapist Bethan McEvoy, who works as an education advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Kabul, said it can be tough to assess the extent of mental illness and emotional trauma from school attacks.

"When we experience a high-stress event, there's a natural response in our body that turns into a survival response," she said. "When people are in a state of constant fear then it's very difficult to turn that response off."

How people are impacted in the long term depends on many factors including their background, family relations and support networks.

"If a school has something in place to provide that kind of support to the child then it can be very helpful," she said.

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