War and schools

Editorial Notebook

November 25, 2006|By Ann LoLordo

The plea of 16-year-old Gamesh was simply stated: "Please open the school again. The war is between adults, but it affects us children. Both parties are violating our rights." In Nepal, where this teenager lives, a decade old civil war and Maoist insurgency have caused havoc - 20 percent of all primary age children don't go to school. Gamesh's plea - quoted in a report from Save the Children, an independent organization devoted to meeting children's needs worldwide - reflects the reality of so many more children across the globe. In countries where civil strife or natural disaster has disrupted daily life, education is a non-essential, a casualty of war, collateral damage. Forty-three million primary-school age children are not in school because of war or conflict, according to Save the Children.

It's a subject that gets far too little attention except among development specialists, relief and aid workers and children's advocacy groups. But the consequences of children not going to school in developing and conflict-scarred areas extend over time and across generations.

Wars, revolutions, earthquakes, floods and other disasters usually result in the closure, take-over or destruction of schools. Teachers are forced to flee or find other ways to support themselves. Children who are not in school are vulnerable to forced conscription or kidnappings by guerrilla forces.

When international aid organizations and relief agencies arrive on the scene, their primary focus is to provide shelter, food and water. Education should be among those priorities. It's not a choice a family should have to make. The benefits of educating kids, whether in their villages or refugee camps, can be documented. School offers structure to dislocated families; it provides kids with a safe haven and the skills to carry on.

Yet access to education is a problem that goes beyond war and disaster. Save the Children estimates that 72 million children worldwide are not in school. Many countries in the developing world don't provide a public education. And where public schools are available, the costs of fees, supplies or uniforms make school unaffordable. Religious laws and cultural taboos also can be barriers to an education, especially for girls.

When countries, including the United States, backed the Millennium Development Goals, they supported a call for universal primary education and set 2015 as the year to reach it. But without a renewed government commitment to education, the goal will be difficult to reach.

Although development aid for education rose from $5 billion in 1999 to $8.5 billion in 2004 (the most recent statistics available), conflict areas received less than a third of the education aid money distributed to poor countries. Distribution needs to be improved.

Governments also have to begin eliminating school fees, which keep too many children at home. They also have to invest in their educational systems, by building schools and properly equipping them, training teachers and paying them a decent wage. By investing in this way, governments are investing in the future of their countries.

Among the best ambassadors and advocates for a universal primary education are children from Sudan, Colombia and elsewhere who have immigrated here and are flourishing in American schools.

Mercy Aremo, a student at Owings Mills High School, is one of them. At 16, she is an active and engaged sophomore. She is fascinated by world history, plays soccer and is a cheerleader. She escaped a life of poverty and ignorance because her mother, Christine, had the will and means to flee their Sudanese village during the civil war of a decade ago.

In her native Sudan, a girl like Mercy might already be a mother, struggling to provide for her child. She might be fleeing the marauding militias that are routing villages and raping and killing. Mercy has been spared such horror. Like other teens, she is looking ahead to college; an ambition derived as much from the circumstances of her early life as her interests today.

"I want to become a pediatrician," she says. "So I can actually go back and help. In Africa, they lack doctors."

Education is not a privilege; it's a basic human right and efforts to protect and secure that right for children worldwide should be fostered.

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