Last week, government delegations from almost 100 states, and over 50 organisations from the UN, civil society and academia gathered in Palma de Mallorca, Spain to discuss steps to ensure better protections for schoolchildren, teachers and their schools in war.

The Third International Conference on Safe Schools provided a forum for participants to share experiences and raise awareness of the Safe Schools Declaration, a political commitment that provides concrete guidance for states to protect education from attack and limit the use of schools for military purposes.

The conference was hosted by the Government of Spain, with support from the Governments of Argentina, Norway and the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), a coalition which was co-founded and is co-chaired by Save the Children.

The scope and impact of attacks on education

Attacks on education are increasing worldwide, turning schools – spaces that should be safe and protective – into sites of violence. New research conducted by the GCPEA has shown that education came under attack more than 14,000 times in 34 countries in the last 5 years.

Education is both a basic right and life-saving humanitarian response. For a child in conflict, school provides access to a safe space to learn, protection from risks such as sexual violence, child marriage, and recruitment into armed groups, and provides a crucial sense of routine and calm. Yet in conflicts around the world, schools are being deliberately bombed, torched and destroyed, and students and teachers are being abducted, raped, recruited into armed groups, and even killed, at and on the way to school.

In addition to the immediate risks to life, in the long term, attacks on education can weaken education systems, and affect a country’s political, economic and social development. GCPEA has found that female students and teachers have been directly targeted for attack, including bombings of girls’ schools, abduction, rape and harassment at school and along school routes, in at least 18 countries facing conflict and insecurity.

Even when they are not targeted because of their gender, the consequences of attacks are often different for females. Girls are less likely to return to school due to pregnancy, stigma, and medical problems resulting from rape, as well as parents’ fear of sexual violence in school if they return. Prioritization of boys’ education when resources are limited also restricts girls’ education.

Save the Children calls for the protection of education in conflict  

The conference was an opportunity for Save the Children to call on all governments to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, and take concrete steps to ensure safe, continuous access to education for schoolchildren, including by:

  1. Strengthening monitoring and reporting of attacks on education, including by collecting data that shows the impact on boys and girls;
  2. Ensuring that education builds peace instead of triggering conflict, and supports the rights of girls and women;
  3. Developing the skills and knowledge of teachers and education staff to refer victims of sexual and gender-based violence to specialist services; and,
  4. Committing to provide multi-year, flexible funding to support education in emergencies.

In doing so, governments help to ensure that international rules and standards to protect children in war are upheld, both in their own conduct as military actors and in the behaviour, they demand from others.

This is one of the key dimensions of the crisis facing children in conflict that Save the Children has outlined in our international plan of action to Stop the War on Children. Leaders and governments have a particularly powerful role to play.  

Save the Children at the Safe Schools Conference

The conference was a major step forward in strengthening protections for schoolchildren, teachers and their schools from attack in conflict, with several new countries affirming their commitment to ensuring continuous access to safe education. As a result of extensive advocacy undertaken by Save the Children, Guatemala endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration a week before the conference and the Ministry of Education participated as a speaker.

The Gambia and Nicaragua also announced their endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration, bringing the total number of countries that have endorsed to 90, representing almost half of all UN member states. Ukraine signaled their intention to finalize endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration in the coming months, following ongoing advocacy by Save the Children, together with partners.

During the conference, Save the Children highlighted the voices and experiences of children whose education has been impacted by conflict, including by sharing a powerful film that opened the conference featuring children from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, the occupied Palestinian territories, Ukraine, and Yemen.

During the conference, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, CEO Save the Children International emphasized how Save the Children is working on the ground to protect children in and around schools through the Safe Schools programme; and Michael Lumor, Advocacy Advisor, Save the Children Pan-African and African Union Liaison Office, spoke during a Civil Society Side-Event organised by Human Rights Watch.

To close the conference, a delegation of children from Save the Children programmes in Spain presented a manifesto for the protection of education from attack to Queen Letizia of Spain.

States commit to strengthening protections for education in conflict  

Throughout the conference, states reaffirmed their commitment to strengthen the protection of education from attack and limit the military use of schools, calling for further endorsement and implementation of the Safe Schools Declaration. 

During the high-level opening segment, Norway announced that they will establish a network of states to facilitate peer-to-peer exchange on implementation of the Safe Schools Declaration. Spain also announced the development of an international training for military delegations from 15 states on the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use During Armed Conflict. Strong cooperation and information sharing are instrumental for improving the protection of schoolchildren, teachers, and their schools.  

The urgent need to scale up efforts to protect education

The conference marked a critical step forward for the protection of education from attack in conflict and highlighted the significant progress that has been made to date by governments and civil society to ensure that schools are safe and protective.

However much more is required of us all. We need to urgently scale up our efforts now if we are to meet the Sustainable Development Goals and deliver on our promise to leave no child behind. Failure to do so will have tragic consequences for the millions of children affected by conflict worldwide. Conflict and violence are a vicious generational cycle. To break it, we must stand for rules-based order. It is only by upholding these values, norms and standards that we can ensure the safety, education and futures of all children.

Read more about how the Safe Schools Declaration is helping to ensure better protections for students, teachers and their educational facilities on GCPEA’s new interactive website.