This article is published in collaboration with Thomson Reuters Foundation

Children and schools are increasingly being used as weapons of war in many countries, and more should be done to protect education in war zones, U.N. Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown said on Thursday.

“We used to think that hospitals and religious establishments and schools were regarded as out of bounds, and certainly international law says that they are,” Brown told a global peace forum in the English Midlands city of Coventry.

“But increasingly … schools are being used by rebel factions and different organisations fighting their wars, and they have become military establishments rather than what they should be – sanctuaries and havens of safety for young innocent children in war,” he said.

Brown, who was British prime minister between 2007 and 2010, was speaking at the forum RISING 15.

In Democratic Republic of Congo, children have been militarised and used as “battering rams” by fighters to improve their chance of winning battles, and in Iraq girls have been used as sex slaves, Brown said.

“…being used as military weapons and … in some cases as sex slaves” are both violations of the rights of children, as are situations where children are displaced and denied their basic rights to education and health, he said.

Attacks on Schools

Schools and universities in many countries including Yemen, Syria, Pakistan, South Sudan, Nigeria and Kenya have come under attack during conflicts in recent years.

Schools have been bombed in Yemen and Syria, children have been abducted from schools in South Sudan and Nigeria, and in many other conflicts schools have been attacked or used as bases for armed groups, or as places to recruit child soldiers.

At the Oslo Conference on Safe Schools in May this year, governments began endorsing a declaration on safe schools, which commits them to protect education from attack.

Last year a coalition of Nigerian business leaders working with Brown, the Global Business Coalition for Education, launched an initiative to make schools safer in response to the growing number of attacks, including the kidnapping of more than 200 girls from a school in northern Nigeria by Boko Haram.

After a successful pilot in Nigeria, the scheme was extended to Pakistan, and further programmes are planned for South Sudan, Lebanon, Congo and other countries.

Lost Education

More than 30 million children are missing out on school in areas affected by conflict, the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO said in June.

Some 35 percent of children in war zones are out of school today, up from 30 percent in 2000, according to UNESCO.

People affected by conflict and other humanitarian crises say education is one of their top priorities – for children it is their top priority – according to research carried out by the London-based Overseas Development Institute.

Brown said that on a trip to South Sudan, he met young refugee mothers whose top concern was for their children’s education, and visited a small village school near Juba that had room for just 20 children sitting on the floor with one teacher.

“The one memory I have of being in that prefabricated hut, was … the small window, and as I looked out I saw about 100 children outside looking in at the education they couldn’t have.”

“Food, shelter and healthcare are vital to survival. But there’s one thing they cannot give that education can give.

“If a young person is given the chance to go to school and think about … jobs and to be able to plan and prepare for the future then they will have hope.”

“And it can be done.”

One million Syrian refugee children in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are not at school. Many are on the streets, some have been trafficked, and the rates of child marriage and child labour have grown, Brown said.

“What is tragic is that most times when there’s a humanitarian emergency, there’s a shortage of facilities, or people to deliver support services.

“There is no shortage of schools … of teachers. What there is is a shortage of money, and that reflects a shortage of compassion and political will to act,” he said.

It would cost just $10 per child per week to give those children an education, he said.

Emergency Education Fund

Brown, the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF) and others have called for a multimillion dollar humanitarian fund for education in emergencies to be set up, that can be mobilised quickly in a conflict, natural disaster or other humanitarian emergency.

Brown said he hoped this fund would be created by the international humanitarian summit planned in Istanbul next year.

Education received 2 percent of humanitarian aid last year. UNESCO says 10 times as much – an additional $2.3 billion – is needed for education in conflict zones.

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Alex Whiting joined the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s editorial team in July 2005, focusing on conflicts and humanitarian crises, women’s rights and corruption.

Image: Palestinian first-graders sit with their schoolbooks during class in the West Bank city of Ramallah February 4, 2013. REUTERS.