Schoolgirl activist Malala Yousafzai at the United Nations, August 18, 2014.

(New York) – The awarding of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize to the 17-year-old activist Malala Yousafzai honors students around the world who take great risks to learn in the face of adversity and conflict, Human Rights Watch said today. Yousafzai is a tenacious advocate for the rights of all children, and girls in particular, to go to school and receive a quality education, free from discrimination and fear.

Yousafzai won the prize jointly with Indian children rights activist Kailash Satyarthi, who has built a global movement against child labor and rescued thousands of children from exploitative labor and trafficking. Satyarthi has campaigned for decades on ending child labor, particularly bonded labor, in India. Honoring Satyarthi and Yousafzai draws attention to the severe challenges in enforcing the child rights and protections in the subcontinent.

On October 9, 2012, Yousafzai was shot and severely wounded by a gunman as she was taking a bus from school in Swat, Pakistan. The militant Islamist group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility. In September 2014 the Pakistani army announced that six months earlier they had arrested 10 members of a militant group for their role in the attack.

“As the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai has become a symbol of the challenges students face amid internal conflict and war,” said Bede Sheppard, deputy children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The Nobel Committee’s recognition of Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi should increase our commitment to ensuring that all children can attend school safely, no matter where they live.”

In 2012, the year Yousafzai was shot, government armed forces and non-state armed groups attacked students, teachers, or schools in at least 22 countries, including Syria, Nigeria, and Thailand. In some cases, armed groups target teachers and schools because they see them as symbols of the government. In other cases, groups carry out attacks because they oppose what is being taught, or to whom.

Students, schools, and education are also endangered when national armed forces or armed groups use schools for military purposes during armed conflict – for barracks, bases, weapons caches, detention centers, or training for soldiers. Students are deprived of education entirely or become distracted or fearful of the military activities going on around them and stop attending. Girls in particular are affected when their parents keep them home due to real or perceived concerns about potential sexual harassment from soldiers. Schools occupied by fighters have been attacked by opposing forces, in some cases killing or injuring students in the crossfire.

In her 2013 autobiography, “I Am Malala,” Yousafzai describes discovering that a school run by her father had been occupied and used by Pakistani government forces while she and her family were displaced by the fighting in and around her hometown:  

There were cigarette stubs and empty food wrappers all over the floor. Chairs had been upended and the space was a mess.... Anti-Taliban slogans were scrawled all over the walls. Someone had written ARMY ZINDABAD (Long live the army) on a whiteboard in permanent marker.... Bullet castings littered the floor. The soldiers had made a hole in the wall through which you could see the city below. Maybe they had even shot at people through that hole. I felt sorry that our precious school had become a battlefield.

A 2009 documentary, “Class Dismissed: Malala’s Story,” also highlights the issue. Showing a journalist around the school, Yousafzai explained: “This is the math class and now this is not a class, this is a bunker of [the] army.” She also said: “I was very proud of my army, that the army protects us, but when I see my school in this way, so I am very shameful of my army.” 

In numerous armed conflicts, Human Rights Watch has called for the investigation and prosecution of all unlawful attacks on students, teachers, and schools. Students kept from their studies by conflict should regain access to education as quickly as possible, as well as psycho-social support if necessary. Damaged and destroyed schools should be rebuilt as quickly as feasible and safe for students to return.

Human Rights Watch has also called for measures to ensure that girls and boys have equal opportunities to pursue education both during and after armed conflicts. Governments should focus on minimizing interruptions to education and increasing efforts to address longstanding barriers children face in conflict zones. Some of the barriers include discriminatory attitudes and practices that impede girls’ education, child marriage, sexual harassment at school, and a lack of adequate sanitary facilities.  

All national armed forces and non-state armed groups should refrain from using schools for any purpose to support their military effort, Human Rights Watch said. In line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2143 of March 2014, governments should develop concrete measures to deter the military use of schools. One such measure is for states to join Norway and 28 other countries in supporting the Lucens Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, and incorporating its protections into their domestic military policies and doctrines.

The recognition of Satyarthi will also draw attention to gaps in enforcing India’s ambitious Right to Education, which provides free and compulsory education to all children up to age 14. While enrollment has spiked, retention remains a serious challenge, with many dropping out partly because of discrimination they face in the classroom. Many children in India and elsewhere end up joining the work force, instead of getting a chance at childhood.

“Far too many children around the world risk their lives to get an education,” Sheppard said. “This prize is an award to two activists, but it is also a testament to the fortitude of children everywhere fighting for the right to study and learn without fear.”