PRINCETON, NJ – Over the past few weeks, thousands of Americans displaced by Hurricane Sandy sheltered temporarily in school gymnasiums and cafeterias. They slept in dry beds, ate hot meals, drank clean water, and charged their mobile phones and computers. These school buildings offered comfort and safety during the storm and after.
But around the world, schools in places experiencing another type of disaster—armed conflict—are often forced to accommodate a different sort of “guest.”
In countries embroiled in war, government soldiers and rebel fighters frequently establish bases in school buildings not just for days but sometimes for years. They exploit school infrastructure to house and protect troops, hold detainees, store ammunition, and fire at their enemies.
Some schools shut down altogether. Others remain open with armed men roaming their compounds while children try to study in the limited and overcrowded spaces still available. Students’ right to education is disrupted and they may be placed in harm’s way.
When I visited schools in parts of India affected by a decades-long civil conflict with Maoist guerrillas, I encountered counter-insurgency camps set up in elementary, middle, and high schools by government paramilitary forces.
In the village of Matiabandhi, I toured the local high school, where several classrooms were being used as a barracks. An armed paramilitary guard monitored my visit from the cinderblock sentry tower perched atop the school’s roof. “The girls are afraid to enter into the school,” a parent complained to me. “We don’t feel secure with 60 to 70 men there.... They bathe in their underwear while girls are there.”
A study released this week by the Global Coalition to Protection Education from Attack—an alliance of various UN agencies and human rights organizations—reveals that the military use of schools is widespread. In the last seven years, government forces and rebel groups have used schools and universities in at least 24 countries, from Afghanistan to Yemen. That represents the majority of the world’s armed conflicts. This global militarization carries a high cost: children have been injured or killed during attacks on their schools; classes for tens of thousands of students have been disrupted; and school infrastructure has sustained major damage.
And where studies continue with armed men on school premises, as in India, some parents withdraw their daughters from school fearing sexual harassment and worried about the lack of secure access to toilets.
Declines in educational quality, reduced general enrollment and increased truancy often also result from the overcrowding and loss of school facilities caused by military occupation.
In the village of Bhita Ramda, little education was taking place at the cramped village hall where classes had been shifted after paramilitary police took over the local middle school. A 10-year-old student said that, “Before the police came the school was running well.” But now, he added, “We don’t like to study like we used to do.” He told me that the police had taken the good tables and chairs: “All the bad and broken ones were left for us children.” Dozens of students had already dropped out of the school.
Converting school buildings into military bases can make schools, and the students who remain, potential targets. Maoist rebels exploded a bomb on a tree near a residential school in the village of Chota Nagra, where paramilitary forces had taken over several school compound buildings. Soldiers returned fire from the roof of the school’s residential hostel while students were sleeping in the building. A teacher I spoke with, who was staying in the hostel that night, recalled: “We went to the children’s room and we saw they were frightened. We tried to stop them being frightened.” Yet none of the police came to check on the students or teachers, he said.
In India, the use of schools by government forces has provided a convenient excuse for Maoists to attack any school, claiming that it had been, is currently, or would be used as a military base. While this explanation does not pass muster with international law, placing students in danger of attack by partially occupying schools also violates the laws of war.
Some governments have taken steps to keep soldiers out of schools. The Philippines, for example, prohibits the military use of schools. Even in India, limited progress has been made as the Indian Supreme Court has ordered troops out—although in some places the security forces have been slow to comply. But more governments, as well as armed groups, should remove their forces from schools and pledge not to use them in future.
Schools, particularly during moments of crisis, whether natural or a man-made, can be places of safety and learning. The dangers and disruptions of war should not be among the lessons students receive at school.
Kennji Kizuka is a researcher for the new report from the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, “Lessons in War: Military Use of Schools and Other Education Institutions.”