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Childhood under attack – protecting schools in times of war

Martin Bell | UNICEF UK

2 min read Partner content

A former BBC war correspondent and Independent MP, Martin Bell warns that "the world is failing to keep schools safe for children affected by war" and calls for the UK to sign up to the Safe Schools Declaration.

We live in the most dangerous times, in which the young are especially vulnerable. Unicef estimates that 250 million children are living in zones of conflict. They are at risk not only in their homes but in their schools. That is why I joined Unicef at their parliamentary reception to discuss this world wide problem. In so many countries it is an act of bravery for a child just to go to school. In some places schools have been taken over by armed groups, and in other places destroyed.

In South Sudan 400,000 children are out of school, and 800 schools have been destroyed in the continuing civil wars. Schools, often the only substantial structures in a community, are taken over and used as bases by warring parties. Children also face the risk of being abducted by proliferation of armed forces and groups, for service as servants or eventually soldiers. I saw a boy in West Equatoria, close to the Congolese border, who at the age of eleven had been forced to club his own father to death.

The world is failing to keep schools safe for children affected by war. In Syria one in four schools cannot be used because they have been attacked, occupied or destroyed. In Yemen 92 schools have been occupied since 2014, seriously damaging the already fragile educational system. Over the past decade armed forces and groups have used schools and universities for military purposes in at least 26 countries caught up in armed conflict.

This phenomenon has reached the most alarming proportions. It is one of the reasons the Safe Schools Declaration has been launched, an initiative that I see as an SOS – Save Our Schools. More than 50 countries have signed up to it, but not yet the United Kingdom. If the United Kingdom were to sign, it would help to stigmatise the use of schools for military purposes. Other countries would then follow, as the UK is influential, both as a permanent member of the Security Council and as a provider of training to other military forces around the world.

Unicef UK’s message is simple: children need education in time of war as much as in time of peace. By signing up to the Safe Schools Declaration the UK can help to play its part in keeping children safe and educated.

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