Published On: Fri, Feb 28th, 2014

Schools and universities increasingly subjected to violence, study finds

Survey of conflicts in 70 countries between 2009-13 reveals 9,600 schools were damaged or destroyed by attacks

Richard Adams, education editor


In Pakistan more than 800 schools were deliberately attacked between 2009 and 2012, with many destroyed through explosions.

Schools and universities have been subjected to increasing violence in recent years, an international study has found.

The survey of conflicts in 70 countries between 2009-13 – published on Thursday by the US-based Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) – reveals that violent assaults on educational establishments are far more widespread than previously reported.

A total of 9,600 schools in the period were documented as being damaged or destroyed by attacks that included air and missile strikes, burnings, looting and armed occupation by army or guerrilla groups.

The worst-affected country was Pakistan, where more than 800 schools were deliberately attacked between 2009 and 2012 alone, with many destroyed through explosions.

The director of the GCPEA, Diya Nijhowne, said pupils and staff were not merely caught in the crossfire in many countries but were actively targeted.

“Many individuals are bombed, burned, shot, threatened or abducted for attending classes or doing their job at school or university,” Nijhowne said. “Many schools and universities are deliberately attacked because they are soft, easy targets, or to undermine government control – a tactic of war.”

Although most of the attacks were recorded in areas of civil war or long-running unrest, in countries such as Mexico the violent struggles fuelled by the drugs trade were also a major source of attacks.

The report found that sustained violent attacks on education were especially prevalent in six countries – Afghanistan, Colombia, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Syria – with at least 1,000 documented attacks or armed seizures in each country over three years from 2009.

It also found at least 500 cases of attacks were recorded in Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, Libya, Mexico and Yemen.

The attacks included the bombing and arson of universities and schools, the shooting, abduction and imprisonment of staff, students and education trade union officials, and the forced seizure of education facilities in conflict zones.

The study’s authors call on governments and international tribunals to give greater protection to education, and say the UN, regional peacekeepers and all sides in conflicts should refrain from using schools or universities for military purposes.

In 24 countries, researchers found that armed forces – both state and non-state – used school buildings as bases, weapons caches, prisons and even torture chambers, in some cases for several years.

Nijhowne said: “More schools and universities could be protected from attack if state military forces and armed groups agreed to stop using them as military facilities.”

The study follows on from a previous survey by Unesco published in 2010, which reported on incidents in just 30 countries. The 2014 report has a wider scope, making comparisons difficult, but the authors of the latest version conclude: “the problem is much greater than previously known or documented”.

The civil war in Syria has taken a deadly toll on the nation’s education system. The reports document the explosions at Aleppo University in January 2013 as the worst of their kind, killing 82 staff and students, while a mortar attack on the University of Damascus in March that year killed 10 students.

The report notes that the most dangerous country to be a teacher is Colombia, where 140 teachers were murdered in 2009-12. Colombia’s main teachers’ union, Fecode, estimates that 5,000 teachers had death threats made in 2011-12 alone.

The GCPEA is an umbrella group formed in 2010. Its members include the UNHCR, Save the Children, Unicef and Human Rights Watch. The group’s recommendations call for international tribunals and states to give specific attention to attacks on education, and prosecute individuals responsible or taking part.

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