Columbia Child Rights’ Conference Explores ‘The Right to an Education’
It’s hard to study when the police are beating people next door.
That’s what happens sometimes at Tankuppa High School in Bihar, India since the police moved into the school building in 2006, as part of the ongoing Naxalite-Maoist insurgency.
“I feel very bad when they beat them,” one student told Human Rights Watch, an international humanitarian organization.
The militarization of schools was just one of the topics discussed at the annual Columbia Child Rights Conference, this year focusing on “The Right to an Education.” Human Rights Watch senior researcher Bede Sheppard told an audience of students, educators and community members about some of the major challenges to education in conflict areas like eastern India during the conference’s “Protecting Education during Conflict” panel discussion.
The four most common types of attacks on education worldwide include attacks on school buildings, students and teachers, along with the occupation of school buildings by military forces, Sheppard said. Since many schools are government-run, insurgents and other rebel forces see them as prime targets to incite a reaction and send a powerful message. For example, 344 students and 145 teachers died during the Nepalese Civil War between 1996 and 2006, according to Global Coalition for Protecting Education from Attack coordinator Melinda Smith, another panelist. In addition, over 40,000 students were displaced during the conflict, due to the destruction of their schools, lack of teachers and educational resources.
Dana Burde, an assistant professor at NYU, also spoke about her experiences studying education in Afghanistan. Almost 2 million school-age Afghani children do not attend school, she said, most of them girls. Most parents think it’s too dangerous for their girls to walk to school in northwestern Afghanistan, where Burde did her study, particularly because of cultural values of chastity and Taliban attacks. As part of their strategy organized to demoralize the opposition and eliminate access to basic services, Taliban insurgents often target schools, students and teachers. Burde mentioned the much-publicized acid attacks on female students walking to school as one example. And while she noted these attacks are rare, she didn’t dismiss their horrific value either.
“That’s not the point,” she said. “They don’t need to be common to scare the girls and to terrorize the parents.”
As a result of these targeted attacks, very few Afghani girls ever get a full education. In hopes of finding a solution to the safety and gender parity problems, Burde studied one non-profit’s approach: abandoning the idea of a school building altogether. Instead, community-based schools are housed in other existing structures like mosques or residences. Creating more schools in new places increased the proximity of village schools for students, and contributed to a 47 percent increase in enrollment in the villages studied. For girls’ enrollment, there was an even bigger increase of 54 percent, accompanied by another big increase in standardized test scores. When community members invest in the school and its creation, Burde found, education is less vulnerable to threats and direct attacks.
Human Rights Watch’s Zama Coursen-Neff, deputy director of the children’s rights division, also added some goals for protecting education on a global scale. Coursen-Neff heads the Global Coalition for Protecting Education from Attack, a group of representatives from multiple non-profits focused on fostering more research and action to protect schools in conflict areas. Their objectives include highlighting attacks on education, improving monitoring and reporting systems, creating early monitoring systems and rapid response plans, helping to enforce international, domestic and military laws banning these attacks, punishing the perpetrators and promoting accountability worldwide.
Columbia Child Rights group co-president Jorie Dugan hoped that conference attendees would walk away inspired by the panelists and take advantage of the panelists’ collective information to do something to advance children’s right to an education.
“Everyone agrees that education is an important issue,” Dugan said, “But this movement doesn’t end with the conference. It doesn’t begin at 11 and end at 4:30pm — it is what we do when we leave that matters.” #
Catherine Rolfe, a student at Barnard College, is an intern at Education Update.