Seleka MPC fighters at a roadblock in Bojomo, Ouham province, with a desk they removed from the local school. 

© 2017 Edouard Dropsy for Human Rights Watch

Fifteen-year-old “Sophie” was a student in the Central African Republic when the Seleka, the armed group of mostly Muslim fighters that had ousted the previous government, threatened to kill the students and teachers at her school. The school shut down. When Sophie, whose name we changed for her protection, spoke with Human Rights Watch researchers, she lamented the loss of her education, “I want to be a teacher, but without the school I can’t realize my dream,” she said. She is not alone–millions of children around the world are denied an education because of war.

Protecting children during armed conflict will be on the agenda this week in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire when African and European leaders gather with representatives from the African Union and European Union and other groups at a summit focusing on youth. African leaders know how urgent and important that issue is.

This year, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, an expert body responsible for reviewing states’ compliance on child rights in Africa, released a study documenting the impact of conflicts and crises on children in Africa. The study makes for grim reading. It highlights numerous attacks on students, teachers, and schools in Mali and Nigeria, and the use of schools for military purposes in Somalia and Niger, to give just a few examples. The effect of this cannot be underestimated: schools destroyed, students and staff at risk of injury or death, and children exposed to risks such as sexual violence or forced labor.  

There is hope for children like Sophie and the others. The Central African Republic is one of 71 countries, including 19 African Union and 20 EU states, that have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, an international political commitment that contains a number of concrete steps that countries can take to protect education during wartime. These include keeping schools open and operating during armed conflict, committing to investigate and prosecute war crimes relating to schools, and collecting data on attacks on, and military use of, schools and universities. Countries that endorse the Safe Schools Declaration also commit to minimize the military use of schools, such as for barracks, which can make schools targets for attack.

The African Union has played a leading role in encouraging the protection and continuation of education during wartime and has a lot it can share with the EU. Indeed, it has placed this at the heart of its strategy on children. The AU Peace and Security Council has been instrumental in promoting the Safe Schools Declaration, urging all member countries to endorse it on several occasions. So far, it is the only regional organization to call for universal endorsement.

Several AU countries have already started taken action to make their schools safer during conflict. The Nigerian government has improved security around schools and universities, including by  digging ditches around schools and installing security lights. Niger has found alternative ways to educate displaced children, by using radio programs for those who cannot travel to school because of insecurity. South Sudan has legislation prohibiting the use of schools for military purposes. In 2016, security around exam sites meant students in Somalia could sit their exams for the first time in several years. And in July, African Union peacekeeping troops vacated the military base on the National University campus in Mogadishu, Somalia, that they had occupied for  10 years.

One of the key tenets of the Safe Schools Declaration is to share best practices and to develop political support for protecting schools and their students and teachers.  Next week, the African Union has the opportunity to show the European Union exactly what it can do to help protect children like Sophie during times of war. It can share lessons on how African countries have been   carrying out the Safe Schools Declaration at both the national and institutional levels.

The EU should consider what steps it can take, individually as well as with the AU, to encourage and help their own country and others to protect education during times of conflict. The AU and EU could also work together to ensure that all their troops on training missions and peacekeeping missions commit not to use schools for military purposes. This is already a requirement for UN peacekeepers.

All children like Sophie have the right to learn in safety. The European Union should help do this by following the AU’s lead and commit to protecting the right to education for all children everywhere. That would be a major step toward investing in youth.