Securing Children's Futures Amidst the Chaos of War
Children are the collateral damage of any conflict. Warring parties regularly breach one of the last moral codes of war enshrined in the Geneva Convention: protecting children from violence and abuse. 1 in 6 of the world’s children are victims of armed conflict and violence. Beyond the risk to life and enduring psychological trauma, armed conflict severs a child’s access to education and the opportunities and social support it provides them.
Schools and early childhood centres are routinely damaged, destroyed, or co-opted as military bases during wars. The international NGO Human Rights Watch documents attacks on schools, students and educators in most conflicts it observes, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, Thailand, Ukraine and Yemen.
Conflict devastates a society’s ability to provide quality education; it is often the least resilient and vulnerable social service, suspended first and the last to be restored. At the same time, schools lose essential educational infrastructure and resources, and trained educators and staff flee.
War’s destruction of the education sector is an attack on the very foundations of society. One that has generational effects on entire communities long after the final bullets are fired. The collapse of education services fuels prolonged social and economic disintegration and dependency.
Children who lose access to education due to conflict suffer lasting consequences. War attacks a young person’s future, potential life options, and employment opportunities.
Evidence highlights that the longer children from war zones are out of school, the less likely they are to ever go back and the more they are at risk of exploitation, abuse, crime and mental health conditions.
Almost half of the world’s refugee children currently receive no schooling. In host countries, displaced children may face language barriers, legal or administrative obstacles, discrimination and social marginalization. Psychologically, refugee children are at risk of trauma and may struggle to concentrate and underperform as they acclimatise to their adopted communities. Access to quality education stops these psychological wounds from turning into permanent scars.
How education benefits children’s well-being and future opportunities
For children experiencing war and social disruption, access to education is essential. Quality education enables a child’s cognitive and social development, enhancing problem-solving, memory retention, abstract reasoning, critical thinking and communication skills. These skills cement stable life paths and professional opportunities.
Education is a springboard for a child to realise their ambitions, develop their skills and follow their passions. Access to stable and supportive schooling grants confidence and mastery of fundamentals, which can enhance self-esteem and individuality. Education also fosters prosocial and community-focused behaviour essential to peacebuilding.
For children who experience conflict, education also provides a sanctuary away from the horrors of war. It helps buffer them from feelings of stress, insecurity and frustration. At conflict-responsive schools, children receive psychosocial support and practical skills to deal with this emotional stress. One of the most vital benefits of schooling for children who experience conflict is its predictability:
Education is a key factor for the normalisation of life in emergencies. Children need a sense of routine and a safe space to continue learning, and education can also provide an opportunity to foster social cohesion and understanding between different groups, contributing to peaceful coexistence in the future. Investing in education is investing in the future of those children and communities affected by conflict. says Dmytro Shapovalov, Education in Emergencies Officer for UNICEF Ukraine.
The continued education of children who encounter conflict benefits an entire society. Education works against the lingering effects of war and provides a means to sustainable peacebuilding and understanding. Educated children adopt civic responsibility and evaluate the best path for themselves and their community. Education can also help liberate a child from repressive social forces that inhibit their ability to grow and thrive. Rather than an afterthought, immediate intervention to facilitate education must drive humanitarian intervention.
Programs or initiatives that are working to educate children in crises
UNICEF’s Education in Emergencies program targets conflict-affected children and youth. In Ukraine, UNICEF collaborates with the Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children and local partners to implement the program. The program directs resources to rehabilitate damaged schools, provide educational materials and train new teachers.
A significant focus of the emergency curriculum is the establishment of temporary learning spaces for displaced children. Establishing these schooling environments is not just about education; they offer protection and relief from the psychological and social stresses of conflict for parents and their children. These learning spaces allow for oversight of children and facilitate the young person's integration with other children facing similar pressures. Safe spaces reduce the risk of abuse and exploitation.
The Education in Emergencies program addresses the psychosocial needs of children in or fleeing conflict zones. Many children have been traumatized by their experiences and require specialized support to cope with this stress and anxiety. The program works to provide counselling services and other forms of psychosocial support to help children deal with their trauma and continue their education. The teaching of life skills is a crucial component of the program.
Beyond emergency education, programs and initiatives focus on long-term educational access. Many NGOs support access to education in refugee host countries through extra-curricular catch-up programs and language and cultural immersion training.
The charity and sponsorship fund, Helping War Victims, is developing an educational fund for children who have lost a parent due to conflict. As well as supporting children’s well-being, the program teaches vocational skills to help them secure employment or continue their future education.
It’s children that provide hope within a devastated society. They point to the future, a world of recovery and freedom from the horror of conflict. Protecting and providing services to ensure children’s safety and overcoming the trauma of their past experiences are at the heart of sustainable long-term peacebuilding and conflict resolution.
Education is essential to disrupting the cycle of poverty and trauma that conflict breeds. War is an injustice; education is the way out of this injustice.
This article was created by Tim McVicar