Schools are sanctuaries. They guide children through infancy to adulthood, but they also provide essential services such as food, shelter, and clean water; they protect the vulnerable from exploitation; and they act as a line of defence against the crimes of child marriage, child soldiering, and child labour.
When a rocket hits a school the horror of the attack dominates media coverage for a brief but intense period. Less attention is given to the longer-term effects of such violence and educational disruption to children and their community. This short report endeavours to examine the effects of explosive violence on schools in the round – from the moment of the blast to the decades, and even generations, that follow.
Explosive violence is used to target children’s education
Attacks on schools are one of the six grave violations against children identified by the UN Security Council. Between 2011 and 2019, data collected by AOAV shows there have been at least 370 incidents of explosive weapons on schools and universities worldwide, resulting in over 5,541 civilian casualties- at least 27% of these were children.
Education occupies a political space. Schools are “visible symbols of state presence” with teachers often acting as “leaders in their community“. Because of this, schools and educational facilities are often targets of explosive violence by non-state armed actors. According to AOAV data collected over the last decade, 58% of incidents of explosive violence on schools are conducted by non-state actors when the perpetrator status is known (see Figure 1).
Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are used more than any other explosive weapon to attack on schools.
According to AOAV data, 111 of the 370 attacks on schools and education facilities between 2011-2019 involved IEDs, this is compared to the 58 attacks which were conducted by air-launched weapons. The predominance of IEDs is indicative of the purposeful targeting of education. Unlike other forms of explosive weapons such as airstrikes and mortar attacks which have wide area effects- IEDs tend to have a smaller range, meaning that the 111 IED attacks on schools were likely to have been calculated and purposeful.
Schools- by their very existence- are often antithetical to the ideology of militant armed groups, as is the case with Boko Haram, the Taliban, ISIS and its affiliates. Girls’ schools are often particularly targeted by militant groups who believe that educating women is in opposition to religiously instituted gender norms. In Pakistan, which has the second most incidents of explosive violence on schools after Syria (see Figure 2), girls’ education has been systematically targeted by militant groups such as the Tehrik-e Taleban Pakistan (TPP). On a single day in August 2018, 14 attacks on girls’ education took place in in Gilgit-Baltistan, northern Pakistan.
State actors are not guiltless. AOAV data shows that when the perpetrator is known, 42% of attacks on schools using explosive weapons were conducted by state actors. In Syria, the aerial bombardment campaign conducted by Russia and the international coalition against IS was found to be responsible for the majority of school attacks.
Explosive violence on schools places children in the gravest danger of death and serious injury. Figure 3 shows a breakdown of child casualties of the five worst affected countries by attacks on education in terms of civilian casualties, though discrepancies in child casualty counting mean that Figure 3. provides an impression of harm rather than a precise reflection. Afghanistan is a particularly concerning case in which 60% of the casualties were children.
It is against international humanitarian law to attack targets without discriminating between military and civilian targets. However, military (ab)use of an education institution can convert it into a legitimate military target. Since the beginning of 2013, approximately 1,000 schools in Syria were reported to have been used as barracks, firing positions, or detention and torture centres by different parties to the conflict.
Explosive violence increases the number of out-of-school children UNICEF estimates that there are 27 million out-of-school children in conflict affected countries. 20% of the world’s primary school age children live in conflict affected countries, but they account for around half of all out-of-school children.
Explosive violence, kills and injures teachers and students and destroys school buildings. It generates instability and distresses the communities that schools serve. By all measures, damage to schools from explosive violence results in a reduction of a pupils’ learning hours. Insecurity generated by explosive violence instils a sense of fear in attending school, disrupting the education of many more children. More broadly, the likelihood of young children dropping out of school is significantly higher in conflict-affected countries: only 65% in conflict-affected countries attend the last primary school grade, in comparison with 86% across low-income countries.
Even when schools are not directly at risk from explosive weapons, the reverberating effects of explosive violence obstruct a child’s access education. The UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) suggests that if transport services are destroyed children will not be able to travel to school, if an airstrike damages the electricity grid children will be unable prepare school work and if the water supply has been compromised
children will have reduced time for homework if they have to travel to fetch water. Toxic stress induced by psychological trauma from explosive violence may affect a child’s ability to learn effectively. The combined consequences are a loss of countless hours of acquiring essential skills.
Syria is a concerning case study. According to Save the Children between 2011-2014 more than half of all attacks on schools worldwide occurred in Syria. AOAV data shows that Syria has suffered more explosive violence attacks on schools than any other country (see Figure 2). Before the Syrian Civil War, the country reported universal enrolment in primary schools and near-universal enrolment in secondary schools. By 2014, half of Syria’s children did not attend school – a figure reaching three-quarters in the worst hit areas. After almost ten years of war in Syria, more than half of children continue to be deprived of education. One in three schools in Syria can no longer be used because they were either destroyed, damaged or are being used for military purposes. There are over 2.4 million children out of school in Syria, nearly 40% are girls.
According to Patricia Justino’s 2015 review of the impact of conflict on education, an average of less than one year of schooling was lost as a direct result of exposure conflicts. Though, she concludes that “education losses – even if minor – shape to a considerable extent the future life prospects of affected children”. Justino’s study considers conflicts such as the Rwandan genocide and Rhodesian Bush War – conflicts which have not been as closely defined by the use of explosive weapons as those in the last decade – meaning that today’s figure may be much higher.
Girls are nearly 2.5 times more likely to be out of school in conflict-affected countries compared to girls in countries not affected by conflict. Figures from Yemen in 2019 found that 36% of girls were out of school compared to 24% of boys.
Educational outcomes of displaced children are profoundly reduced. Among refugees, 39% of primary school-age children and 77% of secondary school age adolescents are not enrolled in education. In 2016, refugee children were found to be five times more likely to be out of school than non-refugee children. Out of the six million primary and secondary-aged refugee children under the UNHCR’s mandate, 3.7 million are out of school. Only 1% of refugee youth attend university, this is compared to 34% globally. When displaced children are enrolled in school, they must bridge the gap substantial educational gap and frequently contend with language barriers. If a child has been trapped in chronic displacement, it is unlikely they will go to university given that 99% of refugee youth do not enrol in higher education.
Long-term reverberating effects
The wholesale destruction of infrastructure caused by explosive violence creates multi-dimensional barriers that prevents the return to education so that even when the fighting has stopped, learning does not resume. An education deficit reduces opportunities, accentuates gender disparities and hinders the wider socio-economic development of a community.
Little or no education will hamper a child’s occupational chances long-term. In an historical analysis of the outcomes of the loss in years of education experienced by children Germany during WWII, Akbulut-Yuksel found that exposed children exposed to Allied Air Forces bombing earned 9% less throughout their lives than similar individuals not affected by the bombings.
The effects can reverberate down generations. We known that girls, in particular, who do not complete their education are at a higher risk of child marriage and pregnancy, and this will have knock-on economic effects. Children of mothers with less education are themselves at greater risk of stunting and infant mortality.
An educational deficit does not only effect the child, it effects the local community and the contribution that community can make to society Economists estimate that each additional year of schooling increases annual GDP by 1%.
When children leave school and go on to participate in higher education, this can act as a catalyst for peacebuilding. A 2006 study found that higher education enrolment rates were found to lower the probability of civil war. The pacifying effects on education and its role in producing both constructive and productive citizens has been underemphasised both in the literature and in humanitarian funding.
The combined direct and indirect effects of explosive weapons can lead to the decimation of an education system. The resulting reverberating effects are seemingly unending, from damage to labour markets to increased gender disparities and even future conflict.
106 countries have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration to express political support for the protection of students, teachers, and schools during times of armed conflict. This is still only half (55%) of all nation states, including only two of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
Until all state actors have committed to the non-negotiable protection of schools, it is difficult to imagine non-state actors following suit.
Research support provided by Jonathan Shires
 Data extracted from AOAV’s Explosive Violence Monitor. Only includes incidents of explosive violence at schools when casualties have been reported.
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