Protecting Education from Attack during Armed Conflict
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Reflecting on the Washington Network on Children & Armed Conflict (WNCAC) event
By Laura Barry and Patrick Gregoire

To keep girls ignorant; to assert control over a given area; to take youths for sex slaves or bolster fighting ranks; to convert a school building to a barracks; and sectarian conflict. These are the presumed motives for attacks on education. So say Brendan O’Malley—a freelance journalist, author, photographer, and documentary filmmaker—and Wendy Wheaton—the Senior Associate of Education in Conflict for Creative Associates International, who between them share over 35 years of experience dealing with education in conflict, Mr. O’Malley and Ms. Wheaton spoke at the Washington Network on Children and Armed Conflict (WNCAC) meeting on September 30, 2014. Attacks targeted at education have devastating effects. The fear, stress, and trauma that persist following an attack leads to great systemic societal problems—such as massive student drop-out, and teacher shortages—and hinder the effects of and opportunities for peacebuilding.

Attacks on education are rarely publicized according to O’Malley. There is a huge gap in public awareness between internationally recognized incidents and the actual rate of attacks. That is why, as O’Malley asserts, it is so important to focus on reporting and monitoring. In 2010, The UN-led research team at the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack undertook a four year research project, culminating in the published report Education Under Attack 2014, in which they discovered thousands of undisclosed attacks on education worldwide. In the report, attacks were defined as “threats or deliberate use of force against students, teachers, academics and any other education personnel, as well as attacks on education buildings, resources, materials and facilities, including transport”. The 2004 school massacre in Beslan, Russia and the kidnapping of 270 school girls in Nigeria have had substantive media exposure, but there are many more attacks just like them, occurring regularly in some areas, that remain unrecognized. This is why it is so important to focus on reporting and monitoring.

Wheaton elaborated on a different focus. She spoke of education’s unique capacity to mold youths. Education can safeguard students physically, emotionally, and cognitively. It can be used to promote peace, inclusiveness, and stability. However, it can also be used to exacerbate conflict, to entrench existing inequalities and prejudices. This is why, Wheaton insisted, when working in education in conflict-affected settings, it is crucial to design programs appropriately. She advised the use of six keywords to guide evaluations meant for education in conflict programs: improve, consider, review, adapt, include, create and step up.

There are many angles to consider when evaluating education programs, but one should always be included; does this encourage or discourage peace? Are curricula and materials informed by a particular bias? History can be told in many ways, but when curricula bend towards one perspective it can deepen divides and entrench conflict.

Both speakers stressed the importance of evaluation at three levels – measures to deter attacks, to limit impact, and to recover from attacks. Education can either be a catalyst or hindrance to peacebuilding. It is essential that evaluation teams are aware of the extensive impact of education in a society. It is pertinent to not just prevent and recover from attacks on education, but to evaluate the process of educational learning itself to ensure its place in constructing a peaceful society.

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