Almost 50 million children and young people living in conflict areas are out of school, more than half of them primary age, and reports of attacks on education are rising, according to figures published on Friday.
Civil war in Syria has contributed to the sharp increase in reported incidents of children being stopped from accessing education, physically attacked for trying to go to school or having their school bombed, or recruited by armed groups, found Unesco's Education for All global monitoring report (pdf) and the NGO Save the Children. Of more than 3,600 incidents recorded last year, more than 70% occurred in Syria.
The report comes as the Pakistani schoolgirl, Malala Yousafzai, 16, addresses the UN general assembly in her first public speech since she was shot in the head by gunmen on her way to school in Pakistan last October.
Two other secondary school girls, Kainat Riaz and Shazia Ramzan, suffered serious injuries in the attack. The Pakistani Taliban behind the attack threatened further attacks if Malala continued her public outreach, and issued warnings against anyone seen to support her or the principle she stands for: ensuring every girl in Pakistan can access education.
The report found that 48.5 million children between the ages of six and 15 living in conflict areas are out of school. Of that number, 28.5 million are aged between six and 11 and more than half of them are girls.
According to the Unesco report, globally, 57 million children are out of primary school.
One particularly damaging, but often ignored, effect of conflict on education is the proliferation of attacks on schools, said the report, as children, teachers or school buildings become the targets of attacks. Parents fear sending their children to school. Girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence.
The 3,600 documented attacks on education last year included violence, torture and intimidation against children and teachers, resulting in death or serious injury, the shelling and bombing of schools, and the recruitment of school-aged children by armed groups. In Syria, 3,900 schools have been destroyed, damaged or occupied for purposes other than education since the start of the conflict over two years ago.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the M23 rebels were largely responsible for putting 250 schools out of use last year, either as a result of occupation for military purposes or looting. Between April and December more than 240,000 students went without schooling for weeks.
In the Central African Republic, more than half of the country's schools remain closed following the Séléka rebel coalition's takeover of the country in April. The education of 1 million children has been jeopardised as a result.
In Mali, following widespread attacks, more than 1,500 schools in the north of the country need repair, new equipment and removal of weapons. The conflict has disrupted the education of more than 700,000 children.
Despite the impact of conflict on young people's schooling, the report said only a small amount of humanitarian funding is earmarked for education. In 2011, education represented 2% of overall humanitarian funding. But even from this low starting point there has been a fall: funding amounted to 1.4% last year.
Save the Children called on world leaders to protect education by criminalising attacks, prohibiting the use of schools by armed groups, and working with schools and communities to preserve schools as centres for learning – especially in a conflict. It urged the international community to cover the cash gap by increasing education funding to a minimum 4% of global humanitarian funding.
"The classroom should be a place of safety and security, not battlegrounds where children suffer the most appalling crimes. Children who are targeted in this way will be paying the price for the rest of their lives," said Justin Forsyth, chief executive of Save the Children.
Pauline Rose, director of the global monitoring report, said: "The decline in humanitarian aid for education is especially bad news because funds are needed more than ever. There are more refugees now than there have been since 1994; children make up half of those who have been forcibly displaced. Nowhere is this more painfully visible than in Syria. These girls and boys face a disruption of their learning process at a critical time – and the risk of a lifetime of disadvantage as a result."
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