Girls study in a tent held up by a tree in a government school in Kabul, Afghanistan. Forty-one percent of all schools in Afghanistan do not have buildings and even when they do, they are often overcrowded, with some children forced to study outside.

© 2017 Paula Bronstein for Human Rights Watch

Britain’s announcement today that it is backing the Safe Schools Declaration is as important as it is timely. The Declaration, in which governments pledge to not use schools for military purposes and to protect them during military operations, has now been signed by 74 countries, including the majority of NATO and EU member states.

Human Rights Watch and others have championed this declaration because in too many armed conflicts around the world, schools are attacked or used for military deployments. Rebel groups and government forces have bombed and shelled schools and universities. Many schools have also been turned into military bases or barracks. The presence of fighters puts students in the line of fire, makes them vulnerable to recruitment as child soldiers, and leaves girls at particular risk of sexual violence.

This phenomenon has had a hugely negative impact - deterring and preventing vast numbers of children, especially girls, from getting an education.

The Safe Schools movement sends the message that all schools – no matter what’s unfolding around them – should be a place of safety and sanctuary.

Britain’s decision to join the Declaration is the result of months of campaigning by Human Rights Watch and other organizations. Signing the Declaration won’t affect British military operations overseas much, because the British military already has some of the world’s strongest regulations on protecting schools in wartime.

What joining the Declaration does do, however, is two key things. Firstly, it strengthens the growing global consensus that schools need to be safe places for all children to learn, develop and thrive. Secondly, it allows Britain to use its influence to support countries where attacks on schools are commonplace – such as Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic – and to encourage, persuade, and support these governments to get soldiers out of schools and get children into them.

Before signing the Declaration, Britain could not have done this without seeming hypocritical. But now it can lead by proud example.