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Children look through a destroyed classroom window at Yerwa Primary School, Maiduguri, Borno state, damaged by Boko Haram during attacks in 2010 and 2013. The school, established in 1915, was the first primary school in northeast Nigeria.  © 2015 Bede Sheppard/Human Rights Watch

Mallorca is set to host an international conference beginning May 28 that will focus on protecting students, teachers, and schools during wartime. Spain offered to host the Third International Conference on Safe Schools to show its support for protecting education from attack. It is an urgent issue.

Education is under attack in armed conflicts in countries across the globe. Since 2013, there has been a pattern of attacks on education in at least 34 countries, according to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack.

Students, teachers and other education personnel are being kidnapped or shot. Schools are shelled and bombed or burned down. In at least 30 countries, schools have been used for military purposes—converted by fighters into military bases or used to store weapons and munitions. Students are being forced out of classrooms or made to share their schools with armed fighters, putting students and their teachers at grave risk.

In Colombia for example, armed groups have carried out repeated attacks on schools and students. Landmines have been placed along paths leading to schools and hidden in playgrounds. Students and teachers have been wounded, in some cases killed. Schools have been shut down for long periods. In Nigeria, Boko Haram militants have set fire to primary and secondary schools, carried out suicide bombings, and abducted children from classrooms, including hundreds of young girls.

Schools have also been under attack in Europe, where the conflict in eastern Ukraine has been a devastating barrier to education. In addition to direct attacks on schools, both government forces and Russia-backed armed groups have occupied school and university buildings, often forcing students out. One entire university was seized in 2014. The students had to evacuate at gunpoint and the dormitories were converted into barracks for fighters.

Military use of education facilities does more than disrupt education. The building becomes a target for attack, possibly causing damage that will leave the students with no school to go to even when the fighters are no longer there.

Attacks on education have a negative effect on students, educators, and the countries themselves. Attacks often lead to increased student dropout rates and a weakened quality of education, and cause direct physical and psychological harm to students and staff. Attacks also affect schools’ capacity to protect students from exploitation, child labor, or early marriage and pregnancy.

The countries meeting in Mallorca will be there to support a political agreement known as the Safe Schools Declaration, which was drafted in 2015 to help put a stop to attacks on education. So far, 87 countries have joined, and it’s hoped that the conference will lead to even more support.

The declaration provides countries with the opportunity to express political support for protecting education from attack. It includes several concrete actions the countries pledge to take to protect their students, teachers and schools. These include helping to keep schools open and operating during conflicts, making a commitment to investigate and prosecute those committing attacks against schools, and incorporating tactics for avoiding the use of schools for military purposes into military training and policies.

It is more important than ever for countries to come together to work out solutions. Mallorca is playing the important role of hosting this conference, and it is now up to the countries attending to play their part to put a stop to the devastating crimes that are committed against students who are just trying to learn. 

The Third International Conference on Safe Schools is being held in Palma de Mallorca on May 28 and 29. A panel discussion, free and open to the public, about the need to protect schools in wartime will be held from 15:30 to 17:30 on May 27 at the Centro Cultural Can Balaguer.

A version of this article appeared in the print version of Ultima Hora on May 25, 2019.

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