Safe Schools: An Education Free from Violence (August 2017)

Ahmad Aged Six In Wrecked School In Idlib
Six-year-old Ahmad sits in ruins of his school in Idlib in October 2016 (UNICEF/UN055730,

Every child in the world has the right to an education without fear of violence or attack. Every school should be a safe place for children to learn, play and fulfil their potential.  But every year millions of children and young people have their education disrupted - by conflicts, direct attacks on schools, military occupation of schools, sexual abuse, bullying and other forms of violence. Each of these is an attack on the future of children, an attack on hope itself.


Education is the cornerstone of childhood development. As well as giving children and young people the skills they need to succeed in life, going to school gives vulnerable children protection from violence and helps them to overcome trauma. Education is vital for the growth of every child, their community and their country.

Every school should – and can – be a safe place. The protection of schools is covered by some international laws and conventions. But these often do not provide a way to bring to justice those who attack education.

Ahmad Aged Six In Wrecked School In Idlib

Ahmed, 6, sits in his damaged school, in Idlib, north Syria. (UNICEF/UN055730,

There have been a record number of children affected by conflicts and emergencies in recent years and, in response to this, humanitarian aid to education increased by more than 50% in 2016. But funding for education in emergencies remains insufficient at 2.7% of the total of all humanitarian aid.

Too often, in too many countries, schools are still places of violence and fear. To make them completely safe spaces requires action from governments, donors and the international community. That includes:

  • Safeguarding children at school
  • Improving processes that allow for action to protect education, such as the Safe Schools Declaration
  • Bringing to justice those who attack schools
  • Supporting measures to lessen trauma and improve peacebuilding
  • Funding quality education for children caught up in conflicts and chronic violence.

The scale of violence against children

Hundreds of millions of children are growing up in situations of conflict and chronic violence. They are denied their most basic rights, with devastating consequences. This is happening in the world’s major conflict zones, such as Syria.

But away from the headlines, hidden humanitarian crises and deep-rooted violence on a daily basis are also damaging the lives of hundreds of millions more children, adolescents and young people – often with lasting impact on their wellbeing and development.

Every five minutes a child dies because of violence. Beyond those deaths, girls and boys are also being robbed of their childhood and youth by toxic stress – particularly in very young children – maiming, sexual abuse and mass displacement caused by conflict and violence.

The statistics are horrifying:

  • Three-quarters of the world’s children have experienced violence in the past year – more than 1.7 billion children in total.
  • In 2015, one child was born into conflict every two seconds – a total of 16 million babies.
  • At least 28 million children have been driven from their homes by conflicts.
  • An estimated 158 million school-age children and adolescents (six to 17 years) are living in 24 countries and areas currently affected by armed conflict.

The impact of violence on children

The terrifying experiences and chaos of war and violence faced by young children are intolerable and can have lasting consequences. Growing up in conflict or in situations of chronic violence, children risk psychological trauma, post-traumatic stress and – in the youngest of children – toxic stress.

Because of the Syrian conflict, at least 3.7 million Syrian children under the age of six – one in three – have grown up knowing nothing but war. Child deaths in Syria increased by 20% from 2015 to 2016. But there is also the risk of injury and permanent disability, the impact of grief and the deep psychological trauma that war inflicts on young children with often dire consequences for their development.

90% of a child’s brain develops before the age of five. To reach their full potential, they need quality nurturing care in their early years, including play, health, nutrition, learning and protection. In a war zone or any situation of chronic violence, achieving the basics is a huge challenge.

Toxic stress is caused by heightened levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can flood a child’s brain. There is extensive evidence of the disruptive impact this has on a child’s development. The number of children affected runs into the tens – if not hundreds – of millions. A 2015 study of Syrian refugee children in Turkey found that 45% showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and 44% showed symptoms of depression.

How violence affects education

Conflict and violence are major barriers that prevent children getting access to education and completing their schooling. Here are some of the effects:

  • At least 37 million children are out of school as result of conflict – but there is no global data on children not at school because of generalised violence.
  • Children in fragile, conflict-affected countries are more than twice as likely to be out of school than in other countries.
  • Adolescents in countries affected by conflict are over two-thirds more likely to be out of school.
  • Only 23% of adolescent refugees are in secondary school – for those hosted in low-income countries the figure is 9%. Just 1% of refugees are in tertiary education.
  • Girls are almost two and a half times more likely to be out of primary school if they live in conflict-affected countries – and nearly 90% more likely to be out of secondary school.

Even when education is available, conflict, violence and forced displacement mean children and young people often drop out due to fear of schools being attacked or the risks associated with the journey to school.

Schools are often deliberately targeted in conflicts or other violent contexts. In 2016 there were almost 400 verified attacks on schools and education personnel around the world – but the actual figure is likely to be higher and the 2017 total is expected to be higher than previous years.

Safe Schools Military Ukraine

Hostilities in eastern Ukraine have damaged or destroyed hundreds of schools, many of which were used for military purposes (Yulia Gorbanova / Human Rights Watch)

Economic or cultural pressures from families for children to work, or for girls to marry early, have an impact on school attendance. Conflict increases these pressures. The rates of child marriage among Syrian refugee girls under 18 have increased significantly. In Jordan, the percentage of Syrian refugee marriages involving girls under 18 rose from 12% in 2011 to 32% in 2014. In Lebanon, 41% of Syrian refugee girls were married before the age of 18.

Apart from conflict, there are many other forms of violence that affect children’s education. In the Americas, gang violence and high homicide rates mean the risk of death can be higher than in war zones. In Guatemala, almost 60% of students fear attending school. At least 23% of students and nearly 30% of teachers have been victims of violence or know someone who has been intimidated by gangs when entering or leaving school. In El Salvador,  there were more than 10,000 known cases in 2015 of students dropping out of school because of violence caused by gangs. In the United States, the risk of a black adolescent boy being a homicide victim was the same in 2015 as that of an adolescent boy living in war-torn South Sudan.

An estimated 246 million children and adolescents experience school violence and bullying in some form every year. While the extent of bullying or violence varies across countries, data suggests this is a near-universal problem. The abuse can be physical or psychological, it can be sexual – including rape – and it can also take place via mobile phones or online. Bullying and harassment is never acceptable and is a violation of child’s rights. It can cause harm to health and well-being and reduce academic ability.

For girls, there are additional barriers to education – including being targeted for simply going to school. In conflict situations, girls are often singled out for attack, facing sexual violence, abduction, intimidation and harassment. Globally it is estimated that 120 million girls – at least one in 10 – have been subjected to sexual violence, rape or other forced sexual acts. Schools, which should be places of safety, are often where girls face serious abuse.

Of 10 countries identified as particularly dangerous for girls to go to school because of risk of attack – Afghanistan, India, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somali, Syria, Uganda and Yemen – most are either currently or recently affected by conflict.

In many countries, physical violence against children in school is even sanctioned through the legal practice of corporal punishment. Half of school-age children – 732 million between six and seventeen – live in countries where it is not fully prohibited.

International Protection

The right to education was first articulated in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Since then, this right has been strengthened through the development of other human rights conventions, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC).

Every country in the world – through the ratification of one convention or another – has made a legally-binding commitment to fulfilling the right to education for all children. International law protects the rights of children to an education in times of peace and conflict. But almost 70 years on from the signing of the UDHR, hundreds of millions of children are still being denied this right.

In 2015, the Safe Schools Declaration was launched. This is a promise by countries to prevent attacks on schools and universities and stop them from being used for military purposes. So far 71 countries have signed.

Also in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals were agreed at the United Nations, with a set of targets to be achieved by 2030. Among them is SDG4 – the goal of “equitable and inclusive quality education and lifelong learning for all”. It calls for specific action to support education for children in vulnerable situations and ensure schools are safe.

The role of education for children living in conflict and violence

Against this backdrop of chronic violence and conflict, there are clear steps that governments, donors and the international community can take that would change the lives of millions of children. Education can and should be key to addressing this crisis.

Making schools and classrooms safe must be a priority, supported by relevant policy, planning and financial commitments. Protecting children and young people, enabling them to learn in vulnerable situations, is an increasingly urgent priority.

Education is fundamental to a child’s development – from the earliest years to reaching their full potential. It is key to their future opportunities, as well as those of their families, communities and countries. It can also be a powerful tool for overcoming trauma for those children and young people who have experienced conflict and violence. It can promote tolerance and foster social cohesion, reducing the likelihood of future violence and conflict.  Education can bring structure, hope and a sense of normality to children’s lives.

Ensuring children who live in vulnerable situations of conflict and extreme violence have access to safe, quality education that leads to strong learning outcomes is key to a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable future for both people and the planet.

How to help children affected by violence

Stopping attacks on schools and preventing the military use of schools is key in conflict areas. It is easy to understand why direct violence against children is wrong – and all countries should sign the Safe Schools Declaration. But another important step is removing any ambiguity about the status of schools in conflicts. Like hospitals, they are protected civilian spaces and should not be used as barracks or outposts for military personnel, to store ammunition or even have an armed military guard. Any of these could undermine their civilian status and protection under international law. Agreed systems to monitor attacks on education would help this and make it easier to bring to justice those who violate international laws.

Better funding for education in humanitarian emergencies is crucial. Despite progress, donors are still failing to ensure access to education in conflict – with less than 3% of all humanitarian aid funding going to education. The European Union gave a lead in September 2017 when it pledged to give 8% of its humanitarian funding to education. In 2016, following months of high-level advocacy and global campaigning, the Education Cannot Wait Fund for education in emergencies was established, designed to increase funding for children’s education in conflict and crisis. Coupled with the Global Partnership for Education’s conflict and fragility fund, more funding is now available in contexts of conflict, fragility and violence.

All babies, young children and their caregivers living in conflicts urgently need “safe spaces” where they can access everything they need for vulnerable children to grow and thrive. These are effectively early childhood development centres that provide protection, physical and psychological support, opportunities for play and early learning, access to clean water and sanitation, and support for caregivers.

Used wrongly, education can contribute to intolerance and conflicts. Used well, it can challenge concepts of exclusion and marginalisation. Education policies that are equal and inclusive can support peace-building, ease tensions among communities, promote positive values and contribute to social cohesion. Governments, with the support of international partners, should develop “conflict-sensitive” education systems that do this.

Tackling prejudice and discrimination – often the root cause of conflict and violence – in teaching and learning materials can help to address the often hidden sources of tension, intolerance and conflict. This includes removing negative stereotypes of ethnic or religious groups, girls and women, and nations. Education is key to preventing gender-based violence against girls, including non-formal programmes in the community, better teaching and curriculums that challenge discriminatory beliefs.

Innovation in teaching and learning can help to lessen the trauma that results from violence. It can help to foster values of tolerance and social cohesion, and contribute to awareness of violence in schools and in the community. Having qualified teachers who adhere to codes of conduct that protect children and young people is also key. Ending corporal punishment in schools would remove one particular risk of violence against children. Teachers – who themselves need to be protected from conflict and violence – can play a pivotal role in delivering safe, quality education.

Hrw Car Occupied Schools 30 Web

An 11-year-old girl who has been out of school for 3 years because Seleka fighters are based near her DRC school. “I liked being in school, it made me feel good to put on my uniform and go to class.” (Edouard Dropsy/Human Rights Watch)


Stronger legal measures to end attacks on schools, teachers and pupils

  • All countries should endorse the Safe Schools Declaration and implement its actions
  • The United Nations and partners should establish a system of global surveillance to monitor attacks on education.
  • Action must be taken against parties listed in the UN Secretary-General’s annual report on Children and Armed Conflict to hold them accountable.

More funding for children living in countries affected by conflict and chronic violence

  • Government donors should build on recent increases to the education portion of humanitarian funding, up from 2.7% last year to between 4% and 6% in 2018.
  • The Education Cannot Wait fund target of $383 million by 2018 must be met by donors.
  • The Global Partnership for Education should be fully funded in its replenishment round in February 2018 as 60% of implementation grants go to countries affected by conflict and fragility.
  • Donors must fulfil their promise to get every Syrian refugee child in school and learning.
  • The International Financing Facility for Education (IFFEd) should be launched, together with other innovative funding for developing countries that includes support for educating children affected by conflict and chronic violence.

Better policies to support children and young people in vulnerable situations

  • All humanitarian response plans should address the needs of children aged 0-5 and prioritise pre-primary education, early cognitive support and the provision of safe spaces for young children and carers.
  • Governments should undertake “conflict-sensitive” planning reviews for their education systems – to ensure they are equal and inclusive.
  • Introduce ways that teachers can lessen children’s trauma and help to create an atmosphere of trust and wellbeing.
  • Enhance national, regional and global initiatives to give youth the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century.

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