Throughout history, conflict has put a halt to formal education, sidelining a human right to a position of luxury. A recent UN report highlighted trends regarding the impact of armed conflict on children. It revealed that the countries with the most pressing situations are, unsurprisingly, home to extremist jihadi groups: Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.
The UN Security Council will host a debate on this topic at the end of October, providing an opportunity for progress. A lack of education isn’t merely a problem that leads to illiteracy, it also robs children of stability, routine, and hope for a bright future. Furthermore, when extreme ideologies fill the vacuum, swathes of children are indoctrinated with destructive practices and thoughts. The international community should respond by focusing on long-term educational solutions.
In Afghanistan, many schools have closed “at an alarming rate due to insecurity,” destabilising fragile gains in girls’ education in a conflict-ravaged country, according to a Human Rights Watch report released on 17 October. As for Iraq, the UN documented 34 incidents in 2016 of ISIS using schools as military positions, depots, and training facilities. In such cases, if the buildings that previously hosted schools are destroyed, evacuated, or overtaken, there is little hope of children receiving a formal education.
Groups such as al-Shabaab and ISIS are fully aware of the benefits of investing in the next generation, ensuring their legacies and warped visions will continue. According to the UN report, the recruitment of children documented in Somalia and Syria has more than doubled since 2015. In Iraq, the continued level of violations by ISIS has been deemed “gravely disturbing.” The group has developed a strategic approach to educating its youth, involving desensitisation to violence, a comprehensive syllabus detailing its perverse ideology, and harsh punishments if the children do not comply.
Boko Haram, which aptly translates as ‘Western education is forbidden,’ clearly proclaims its stance towards education from the get-go. The group abducts children, as with the 276 Chibok girls kidnapped from their school in northeastern Nigeria in April 2014, and deploys them to commit suicide attacks and assaults on the enemy. Boko Haram appears to view children as an entity for group gain, not as valued individuals in their own right.
As military offensives progress and territory is retaken from Islamist militant groups, fresh challenges are presented. On 17 October, US-backed forces announced the capture of ISIS’ former Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, and in June, the Iraqi government said it had pushed the group out of Mosul. When jihadi groups are pushed back, they leave behind land and individuals who have lived under their violent ideology for years. Some 400,000 children remain displaced from the fighting for Mosul, and schools and public spaces are still unusable. Such children are anchorless, having been torn between formal education and extremist indoctrination, and are left confused without formal guidance.
Furthermore, there is undeniable evidence that children left behind are disturbed and struggling with intense trauma. Save the Children has said youngsters in areas where ISIS has been defeated are “haunted by their experience, left with psychological scars that’ll take years to heal.” Reports have described young children so distressed they have become mute, leading to the UN recently recommending postconflict efforts to focus on “psychosocial” aspects alongside educational programmes.
As combat missions to defeat Islamist militant groups continue, international actors must explore and invest in long-term solutions to help children. Temporary responses have been rolled out in various areas. Learning centres have been established in some refugee camps, and informal learning programmes have helped children who cannot reach schools. In Afghanistan, community-based education programmes have had relative success. But these efforts are often provisional, are subject to unpredictable closures, and suffer a lack of sustainable funding.
For children who have undergone indoctrination and trauma, more lasting solutions are required. The global community must commit the same resolve and prioritisation as the extremist groups, recognising the value of long-term investment in the younger generation. In part, this can be done by ratifying international obligations and adhering to global standards, such as the Safe Schools Declaration, a political pledge that signals states’ resolve to keep schools safe during conflict. At present, less than two per cent of global humanitarian aid focuses on education. This can and should be increased.
Practically, the education of children after conflict might not, and perhaps should not, only reflect traditional models. New initiatives can focus on vocational training programmes and tailored deradicalisation initiatives that acknowledge the importance of tackling mental health challenges. Programmes that promote peace and co-existence, such as Generation Global, which equips children with learning and dialogue opportunities, should be formalised into curricula.
The global community is not in the dark about the effects conflict has on children, with multiple previous conflicts having raised similar issues. It would be foolish for the world to not learn from these experiences and respond constructively today.