© UNICEF/UN06848/Al Halabi

Children are facing more devastating wars and disasters than ever before. Over the past decade, the number of extremely violent conflicts has almost doubled. 250 million children now live in conflict-affected areas, and a quarter of children in conflict zones are out of school. 

In the midst of these conflicts, schools can become a vital source of safety and hope for children. Yet in recent years, a pattern of attacks on schools, universities, students and staff has been identified.
 
Between 2009 and 2013, 1,000 such attacks took place in Afghanistan, Colombia, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Syria.
“We can’t spend time out of the classroom. The playground is too exposed to the snipers. We even spend our breaks inside.” UNICEF helped 16 year-old Ahlam and her friends get to school safer by building a steel wall around their school in Aleppo, Syria. “My friends and I know that without coming to school we won’t have a future,” she says. © UNICEF MENA

When schools are used for military purposes, children are exposed to violence and exploitation, and their schools can become targets for bombing. Schools have repeatedly been turned from safe havens to recruiting grounds for armed forces and groups.
 
  • Children have been kidnapped from their classrooms, forced to become soldiers, enslaved, raped and traumatised. The threat of attacks, violence and military occupation means countless more children don’t go to school because their parents are scared they won’t return home.
  • In Syria, one in four schools cannot be used because they have been damaged, destroyed, or are being used for military purposes or to shelter displaced families.
  • Since the war broke out in South Sudan, more than 800 schools have been demolished and more than 400,000 children have had to abandon their classrooms.
  • School closures resulting from the escalation of conflict in Yemen forced at least 1.8 million school-aged children out of school during the 2014-2015 school year. 1,500 schools remain closed due to insecurity, leaving over 383,000 children out of school.
Nyaturo Diew’s school was destroyed when violence broke out in Bentiu, South Sudan. “I spent one year without school because of the fighting. I want my home to return to the way it was before, when people used to go to school and when there was peace.” © UNICEF/UN09920/Ohanesian
 

The Safe Schools Declaration

 
The Safe Schools Declaration is a non-legally binding political commitment by states to protect education from attack. The declaration sets out simple, clear and practical actions that can help all parties to exercise restraint with respect to the military use of educational facilities, and lessen impact on students’ safety and education when it does occur.
 
While educational facilities are civilian objects and should have a protected status during wartime, those who conduct deliberate attacks against schools are not always held accountable. What’s more, when schools are used for military purposes they can lose their protected civilian status and become lawful military targets. The Safe Schools Declaration seeks to combat this and enhance the protection of schools, students and teachers.
 

The role of the Australian government

 
Ahead of the first ever World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016, Australia can demonstrate its political commitment to keeping children and schools safe during war by signing on to the international Safe Schools Declaration.

More than 50 countries have already signed on to the declaration, sending a clear message that schools must not be attacked or occupied for military purposes.
 

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