When education becomes a terrorist target

In the wake of the school attack in Peshawar, Pakistan, global cooperation is needed to protect schools and students, says Kyle Matthews.
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December 19, 2014
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This week’s senseless school attack in Peshawar, Pakistan, by the Taliban has left more than 130 children dead, hundreds of families in mourning, a country in shock and the international community wondering what can be done to protect students from such violence.

That this cowardly use of force against young civilians took place just shortly after Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, alongside co-winner Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian activist, should not surprise anyone. Malala survived an assassination attempt by the Pakistani Taliban in 2012 in Swat Valley. She was targeted because of her efforts to ensure more girls attend school and empower themselves through education.

The person believed to have ordered Malala’s murder (and the attack against the school in Peshawar) is Maulana Fazlullah. He is better known as “Mullah” Radio because of his preaching on an illegal radio station years ago in which he frequently condemned girls going to school, arguing it goes against the teachings of Islam.

Commenting on the Peshawar massacre, Malala stated “Innocent children in their school have no place in horror such as this” and that "I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters - but we will never be defeated." Some of have speculated that the attack was revenge for her being awarded a Nobel prize.

Unfortunately non-state actors have been increasingly targeting education institutions in recent years. Just a few weeks ago in Afghanistan Taliban supporters launched a suicide bombing campaign against a French school in Kabul. While children and teachers gathered in the school auditorium to watch a play about the dangers of suicide attacks, someone slipped into the crowd and blew himself up, killing one.

But the problem is not just limited to South Asia. In Nigeria the Islamist group Boko Haram, which stands for “Western education is a sin”, has carried out a series of deadly raids and attacks against non-religious educational institutions. The kidnapping of more than 200 school girls earlier this year is just the most recent case. The group has made clear that targeting schools is a religious duty and that they intend to continue, regardless of global public opinion or international human rights law.

You know things are getting worse when an organization is formed to confront the problem. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) was established in 2010 by numerous organizations who were “concerned about on-going attacks on educational institutions, their students, and staff in countries affected by conflict and insecurity.” GCPEA is governed by a steering committee comprised of the Council for At-Risk Academics, Human Rights Watch, the Institute of International Education, Save the Children, as well as UNICEF, UNESCO, and UNHCR.

The Atlantic recently reported on the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database that demonstrates empirically that the problem has gotten worse in the past decade. While attacks against educational institutions sometimes occurred at the ratio of 100 per year at certain periods in the 1980s and 1990s, generally they would fluctuate at about 50. Beginning in 2004, the numbers have spiked upwards, reaching approximately 370 in 2013.

In the wake of the Peshawar attack, a consensus has emerged that increased global cooperation is needed to protect schools and students. The late Nelson Mandela accurately once noted that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. We must not lose sight on the fact that those targeting schools and students know this to be an absolute truth.