No longer just caught up in the crossfire: Gendered attacks on education as a tactic in violent conflicts

By madeleine kennedy-macfoy

One of the many strengths of the 16 days campaign is the fact that every year, the minds of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of people across the world are focused on the same topic, with a clear call to action. This means that no matter the specific sector in which we may work, or whether we work on advocacy, policy, communication or research or in a women’s refuge, during those 16 days, we all focus on the wide range of people living and working in all types of places and spaces, whose lives are negatively impacted by gender violence.

When governments adopted the Dakar Framework for Action at the World Education Forum in 2000, armed conflicts were identified as a major barrier to the achievement of education for all (EFA). Eleven years later, the issue was once again highlighted in the 2011 EFA Global Monitoring Report, which laid out evidence showing how armed conflict is a hidden crisis within education; ‘one of the greatest obstacles to accelerated progress in education’.

2014 marks the 10th anniversary of the third deadliest hostage crisis and biggest terrorist takeover of a school the world has ever seen: 331 people, including 176 children, were killed when security forces attempted to rescue hostages from School No.1 in North Ossetia, fifty-two hours after terrorists took over on the first day of school, September 2004. Over the last 10 years, it has become clear that students, teachers and educational settlings are increasingly targeted prior to, during, and after situations of armed conflict. Attacks that target educational buildings and institutions, or use them for military purposes, are not necessarily gendered; men and women, girls and boys can all be affected. However, since 2009, there is growing evidence, including the explicit references to gender in the rhetoric and ideological posturing of violent extremist groups, to show that attacks on education are gendered.

This blog calls for reflection in solidarity and, more importantly, action to protect those whose lives are so deeply affected when the fulfillment of their right to education is seriously hampered, or as is the case far too often, made impossible as a result of violent armed conflict.

Attacks on education

In their most recent report (Education under Attack 2014), the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) documented ‘attacks on education’ in 70 countries between 2009 and 2013, including 30 countries where there was a pattern of deliberate attacks. An ‘attack on education’ is widely defined as the intentional use or threat of force against students, teachers or other educational support personnel. The evidence presented in the report shows that students of all ages, teachers, academics and education support personnel, teachers’ unions and educational institutions were all targets for intentional attacks for a range of reasons that can be political, military, ideological, sectarian, ethnic or religious.

The types of attacks are also varied, ranging from killings, disappearance, torture & imprisonment, military use of schools and universities, destruction of educational buildings and materials, sexual violence, attacks on students and educational personnel at or on the way to or from schools or other educational settings. The UN Security Council has expressed ‘deep concern’ about attacks and threats of attacks against schools and the closure of schools in situations of armed conflict (see UN Security Council Resolution 1998, adopted in 2011).

The evidence available suggests that deliberate attacks on educational institutions and their constituencies of staff and students can be considered ‘a common tactic in situations of conflict and insecurity around the world’.

Gendering attacks on education

The 2011 GMR contextualised attacks on education in relation to the changing nature of armed conflicts in different parts of the world today, which is radically different from the wars and conflicts that characterised the first half of the last century. During the latter half of the 20th century, many wars and armed conflicts occurred within, as opposed to across, national borders. There has also been a rapid increase in conflicts that involve military intervention by other states (as evidenced in Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia). In countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, neighbouring states have provided financial, political and logistic support to non-state groups involved in armed conflict, with violence spilling across national borders (GMR, 2011:137). It is in the changing nature of armed conflicts – how they are carried out and by whom; who finances them and why – that we can most clearly discern the role that gender plays within the tactical use of attacks on educational settings, on students and on educational personnel.

And there is a certain logic to this, if we contextualise war and conflict as ‘the explicit expressions of deeply gendered, as well as ethnicised and classed, long-term dynamics that precede the outbreak of conflict, escalate dramatically, and persist long after ‘peace’ has been officially declared and the transition from overt warfare is taking place’ (Mama and Okazawa-Rey, 2008).

In patriarchal societies, gender norms position women as the custodians of culture, responsible for transmitting the myths of nationhood and traditions to future generations, and restricted to the private domestic sphere. As future women, girls (specifically their bodies and minds) are, therefore, perceived as legitimate subjects of control within their own communities, and in situations of armed conflict, as legitimate targets by enemy armies or factions. Evidence gathered by Save the Children shows that female students and teachers and girls’ schools are especially targeted in contexts where the subjugation of women is an explicit objective of armed groups. Female students and teachers no longer ‘just get caught up in the cross-fire’ when schools and other institutional settings are attacked; they are specifically targeted.

The right to education enables individuals to learn about and claim their other rights; it is no wonder that girl’ education is perhaps perceived as the biggest threat to the warped plans of terrorist organisations or networks.

It is estimated that as many as 900 government and private schools were closed in Pakistan in 2010 after the Taliban issued an edict banning girls’ education. Joint 2014 Nobel Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai, is one of the 120,000 girls’ who were prevented from attending school. In Afghanistan, the Taliban and associated armed groups have poisoned food and water meant for school girls as a way of preventing them from obtaining an education; in northern Nigeria, Boko Haram’s opposition to what they refer to as ‘western education’, has been well documented since they began their insurgency in 2009, culminating in their most audacious attack on education in April this year, when they kidnapped close to 300 school girls from a government school in Chibok, sparking the global #BringBackOurGirls campaign.

Time to join the dots

So as we focus our thoughts and actions on securing the right to education for those who are deprived of it as a result of armed conflict, we might also consider how to ‘join the dots’ – between sectors, movements and communities – in order to strengthen our advocacy and activism.

It is timely and strategic for us to see different social justice agendas as the sum parts of a greater whole; as such, each of our areas of concern stands stronger and is more likely to make an impact when we reinforce and support each other’s messages and demands.

It behooves us to make the links between our different focal areas concern, and to carry each other’s messages and demands along with our own. For example, the staggering impact of armed conflict on girls’ education makes it clear that education activism needs to incorporate the demands of the women, peace and security agendas, and vice versa. Not only are we stronger together, but because violence against women and girls is manifested in all areas of life, our responses need to be linked and to mutually reinforce each other.

madeleine kennedy-macfoy works on gender equality issues at Education International, the largest global trade union federation, which represents 30 million teachers and other education employees worldwide.


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