17 December 2014: Many schools in Pakistan are startlingly quiet today. Most children are at home, their schools closed as a mark of respect for the more than 130 children who yesterday had their lives and futures torn away from them in an act so barbaric as to be almost unspeakable, in the very place every child should be safe – at school.
The political situation in Pakistan is highly turbulent, and the government, the army and the insurgents seemingly each have their own grievances. But under no circumstances can children be the pawns of warfare and never will schools be an appropriate setting for conflict.
The sight of children being ushered along by soldiers as they run at pace from their classrooms, of teenagers crying as the school uniforms they ought to take pride in are drenched with blood, of the presumably once bustling corridors and classrooms burnt out and strewn with rubble while parents mourn around tiny coffins, is frankly chilling. They are images seared into my mind. No child should ever have to experience this terror.
TOO SCARED TO RETURN
Sadly, scenes such as these are an all too common reality, though the scale of this particular incident is both unprecedented and horrific. Every day, throughout the world, children are subjected to physical and sexual violence on their way to school and even in their classrooms, at the hands of those willing to deprive these students of the innocence of their childhood.
The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack reports of at least 800 brutal attacks damaging or destroying schools between 2009 and 2012 in Pakistan alone. These attacks saw militants brandishing grenades and guns, firing rockets at buses, slaughtering teachers and aid workers and recruiting child soldiers and suicide bombers from classrooms.
Thousands of girls and female teachers in Swat stopped attending school after the Taliban gained greater control in 2009, and many have been too scared to return since; presumably this latest attack, in which nine staff members were killed, will have a similar effect.
VICTIMS OF VIOLENCE
And though it seems Pakistan is the heaviest hit by these sorts of atrocities in flagrant breach of a string of international humanitarian laws and protocols, such violence is a desperately sad reality across the planet. Children and educators have been killed or emotionally scarred and education quality, enrolment and completion rates have declined as schools have closed, students have dropped out and teachers and prospective teachers – already in short supply – are too scared to pursue their vocation.
From Somalia to Syria to South Sudan, from Colombia to Cote d'Ivoire to the Central African Republic, from Iraq to Iran to Indonesia, children have been victims of violence in political conflicts they have no involvement in - and that is despicable.
Every day I work with and advocate alongside individuals who have in their childhood been denied the opportunity to fulfil their potential as conflict has rocked their country, and who through sheer perseverance and strength of will, with the encouragement and support of their families and communities, and with the support of charities and aid organisations like Plan, have gained the education they need to help bring prosperity and stability to their countries.
MULTITUDE OF BARRIERS
The costs of children and of education becoming embroiled in this sort of conflict are dire, especially in countries like Pakistan where quality is already weak and many students go without. In a year that UNICEF has already declared ‘devastating’ for children, this attack is a reminder of the multitude of barriers which prevent millions of children getting the education they are entitled to and that they deserve.
Around half of the 58 million children who are not in school already live in countries affected by conflict, and without the funding needed to ensure the security of infrastructure, the safety of students and the provision of quality teaching, they risk constituting a lost generation.
When incidents like these make the headlines, as with the Bring Back Our Girls campaign following the kidnap of schoolgirls by Boko Haram in Nigeria earlier this year, many are left paralysed by shock. Every one of us, by virtue of our very humanity, can understand and share in the tremendous grief caused by this utterly indefensible attack. But to prevent this ever happening again, we all must join the movement to ensure every child has a quality education where they are free from violence or the threat of it.
We will continue to work tirelessly until that simple and instinctive ambition is a secure reality for each and every girl and boy.