Editor’s note: This article contains descriptions of violence. 

“We were getting ready to sleep when we heard shouting, we saw men wearing dark green clothes with guns, axes, and machetes,” Bright Mumbere, a student who survived an attack on his Ugandan school by militant rebels associated with ISIS, told Al Jazeera. “They wanted us to open the dormitory door and then started shooting."

This scene describes what prefaced the death of at least 41 people in Uganda’s Lhubiriha Secondary School on June 18. The Ugandan government confirmed that at least 38 students were among those killed in the attack, which saw rebels violently attacking students and subsequently setting the school alight. According to police, the youngest victim was just 12 years old. 

One student describes having to use the blood of his fellow students to protect himself.

“I lay next to the bloodied bodies of my friends and thought very fast,” he told the BBC. “Then I smeared a lot of blood into my ears, mouth, and on my head and when the militants came, they checked my hand for a pulse and left.” 

In a statement responding to the school killings in Uganda, UNICEF’s Catherine Russell said: “This was a heinous and unconscionable act of violence. An attack on a school and schoolchildren in this manner is an assault on the very progress young people have led in Uganda for years.”

This atrocious attack is just the latest proof that education is under attack. The killing of dozens of students is more than enough proof that immediate action needs to be taken to protect children and their education from insurgency, conflict, violence, and insecurity. 

This is far from the first time that education has been attacked as a result of conflict or for rebel gain. For decades, schools and educational institutions have been a direct target for violence and conflict. In fact, the same group accused of this most recent attack at Lhubiriha Secondary School in Uganda was allegedly responsible for a 1998 attack, also in Uganda, in which 80 students were killed. 

Students and schoolchildren have had to witness and experience unspeakable things as a result of violence, conflict, and insurgency — made all the more devastating by the fact their places of education should be places of safety and security.

From attacks in Cameroon’s schools in 2022, to the Taliban inflicting control over schools in Afghanistan, to Boko Haram’s kidnapping and insurgent activities in Nigeria — schools have been under attack, impacting education around the world. Here are some ways that conflict, insurgency, and violence impact the state of education globally. 

1. Children drop out or are pulled out of school

Over 240 million children globally have had their education disrupted due to war and violent conflict. Children’s futures are set back or stopped in their tracks as they are either killed, otherwise directly impacted by violence, or lose access to education. In fact, children exposed to violence are more at risk of under-achieving and dropping out of school as a result.

2. Schools themselves are destroyed or exploited in wars and conflict

Schools and educational facilities are often destroyed, looted, or occupied during conflict, leaving children with nowhere to turn to for education. According to the UN, over 400 million children live in a conflict zone, meaning millions of children have had their access to learning and development halted or disrupted.

Over a decade of war in Syria has led to millions of children without access to formal education with hundreds of schools having been destroyed, and others lacking adequate sanitation, heating and ventilation, and electricity, not to mention too few teachers. 

In Ethiopia’s Tigray region, a war that went on for just two years (2020 - 2022) wiped out over a decade of progress in the country, and according to Ethiopia’s Minister of Education an estimated 7,000 schools were damaged in the war by the end of 2021 — just one year into the war. Human Rights Watch also reported that during the conflict, schools had been looted and were occupied by perpetrators of the conflict.

3. Access to other essential school benefits is limited

As well as their education, children are also deprived of other essential benefits that schools provide, such as vital school meals that help to ensure food security in communities; safety and security which is a basic human right for children; and personal development, as well as the keys to a bright future.

4. Girls are disproportionately impacted by attacks on schools and education

Despite education being vital in protecting girls from things like child marriage and domestic violence, in the case of war and insurgency, girls at school are often direct targets for violence. Girls often experience the worst of conflict and war, as women and girls are used as tools of war through sexual violence, which can occur on school grounds during attacks. 

Education activist Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head for speaking up in the name of girls’ education, is a reminder of the blatant attacks on girls’ education globally. 

In conflict and crisis, girls are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school than boys, and are less likely to return following a ceasefire. What’s more is that a 2019 report by UNHCR reveals that refugee girls are half as likely to be in school as refugee boys

Read more about how war and conflict fuel poverty, impact women and girls, and disrupt global health systems.

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By Khanyi Mlaba