As the curtain comes down on yet another year, I sit back and reminisce about the passage of time like many of my fellow earth dwellers. The year has been extraordinary in many ways. However, nothing compares to the dramatic highs and lows that the human civilization has reached in rapid succession.

In November, a group of determined scientists and engineers pulled off the impossible. They landed a small spacecraft on a comet hurtling through the space between Mars and Jupiter at 34,000 mph, effectively hitting a bull's eye from 310 million miles afar! A month later, another band of desperadoes found their mark at a point-blank range among the children of Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan.

I try to draw up a list of "most significant" events from the topics that garnered wide attention (i.e., trended for a while) on social media. Among these are two sharing a common theme: #BringBackOurGirls (the popular Twitter handle) and the Peshawar massacre.

Both incidents took place on school grounds when large groups of students were busy with exams. The perpetrators exploited the intimate relationship between educational institutions and children to further their agendas. In each case, these "motivated" adults have provided similar justifications for their actions.

On November 20, 1989, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which, among other things, calls on every country to enact legislation that will reduce both social and financial barriers to staying in school. Today, the CRC is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history, with 194 signatories (the United States, Somalia, and South Sudan are the lone holdouts).

In the 25 years after committing to protect every child's right to education, an overwhelming majority of these 194 governments have followed through on their promise at the primary school level. In 90 percent of the countries that have ratified the CRC, primary education is both free and compulsory. Even those nations who do not adhere to the guidelines of "human rights" have taken measures to guarantee the fundamental right of children.

However, to these desecrators of sanctity of educational institutions, a child’s right is a far-fetched thought. Their actions are nothing but attacks on children's right to education. The United Nations defines an attack as any intentional threat or use of force directed against students, teachers, education personnel and/or education institutions, carried out for political, religious or criminal reasons.

Educational institutions are particularly vulnerable to attacks because of their curriculum content, or because they are seen to support new or old government structures or political ideologies. In other situations, education is attacked as a means of stopping educational, social and economic progress for particular groups of children, particularly girls, or to cause widespread destruction in communities that are not supportive of an armed group.

A 2013 report by the UK-based organization Save the Children estimated that nearly 50 million children and young people in conflict zones face the unnerving barriers to education every day, keeping them out of school and preventing them from reaching their true potential. As such, fewer children worldwide are now feted with their fundamental right than in the previous years due to war and other acts of violence.

A study published in 2014 by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), which includes the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Save the Children among others, finds that during 2009-2012 armed non-state groups, state military and security forces, and armed criminal groups have attacked thousands of schoolchildren, university students, teachers, academics and education establishments in at least 70 countries worldwide.

It concludes that targeted attacks on education and incidents of military use of schools and universities are occurring in far more countries and far more extensively than previously documented. It is not known whether this reflects growing awareness of the problem and more and better reporting of such attacks since the earlier studies were published or an actual increase in the number of attacks.

The Nigerian militant Islamic group Boko Haram (means ‘Western education is a sin’ in local Hausa language) has been waging a war against the Government seeking to impose a strict form of Sharia, or Islamic law, in northern Nigeria. The group’s leadership has endorsed school attacks and purportedly threatened to burn down non-Islamic schools and to kill the teachers.

On April 14, Boko Haram militants abducted 276 mostly-Christian girls from the Government Secondary School in the town of Chibok in Borno State, Nigeria. Houses in Chibok were also burned down in the incident. The school had been closed for four weeks prior to the attack due to the deteriorating security situation, but students from multiple schools had been called in to take final exams in physics.

Parents and others took to social media to complain about the government's perceived slow and inadequate response. The news caused international outrage against Boko Haram and the Nigerian government. The hash tag #BringBackOurGirls began to trend globally on Twitter as the story continued to spread. Except for the 53 girls who had managed to escape, the abductees still remain unaccounted for. Boko Haram subsequently claimed that the students were converted to Islam and married off to members of the group, with a reputed "bride price" of ₦2,000 each ($12.50/£7.50).

According to the GCPEA study, there were 838 or more reported attacks on schools in Pakistan during 2009-2012, more than in any other country, leaving hundreds of schools destroyed. Militants allegedly belonging to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP or Pakistani Taliban) recruited children from schools and madrassas, some to be suicide bombers. They also carried out targeted killings of teachers and academics.

The face of TTP’s assault on education is the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzi, who was shot on October 9, 2012, along with two other students on their school bus. Apparently, the then 15-year-old was singled out for promoting values that were secular and anti-Taliban. Malala had written an anonymous blog for the BBC about life as a schoolgirl under the Taliban. The Peshawar school massacre of December 16 was allegedly carried by TTP too. The attack, which claimed the lives of 141 people, mostly children, was the worst terrorist atrocity Pakistan has suffered. As in previous attacks, the Army school was identified as a symbol of government authority. Accused of “promoting western decadence and un-Islamic teachings,” schools have proved a soft target for TTP in their northwestern strongholds. When TTP briefly took control of Swat Valley in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in 2012, they “banned girls’ schooling outright, forcing 900 schools to close or stop enrolment for female pupils.” While the rule was later relaxed to allow girls to attend school up to age 10, in Swat district alone, about 120,000 girls and 8,000 women teachers stopped going to school.

The TTP campaign against education has been “alarmingly efficient,” the GCPEA report concludes: hundreds of thousands of children have been bombed or terrorized out of school, while violence against teachers has had a devastating effect on recruitment. According to the International Crisis Group, more than nine million Pakistani children are not currently receiving a primary or secondary education. The country’s own Human Rights Commission concedes it has the second-largest proportion of children not attending school in the world after Nigeria.

Although the Chibok and Peshawar incidents were marquee-grabbing news in 2014, they are hardly the only ones. In early December, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) declared 2014 as being “devastating” for some 15 million children caught up in violent conflicts around the world. Most of these children are from the Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and in the Occupied Palestinian territories – including those displaced in their own countries or living as refugees outside their homeland, according to UNICEF. And an estimated 230 million children live in countries and areas affected by armed conflicts, it said.

In 2014, UNICEF said children have been kidnapped from their schools or on their way to school, recruited or used by armed forces and groups:
·        In the Central African Republic, 2.3 million children are affected by the conflict, up to 10,000 children are believed to have been recruited by armed groups, and more than 430 children have been killed and maimed – three times as many as in 2013;
·        In Gaza, 54,000 children were left homeless as a result of the 50-day conflict during the summer that also saw 538 children killed, and more than 3,370 injured;
·        In Syria, with more than 7.3 million children affected by the conflict including 1.7 million child refugees, the United Nations verified at least 35 attacks on schools in the first nine months of the year, which killed 105 children and injured nearly 300 others;
·        In Iraq, where an estimated 2.7 million children are affected by conflict, at least 700 children are believed to have been maimed, killed or even executed this year;
·        And in South Sudan, an estimated 235,000 children under five are suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Almost 750,000 children have been displaced and more than 320,000 are living as refugees.

The children’s agency went on to say that 2014 has also posed significant new threats to children’s health and well-being, most notably the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which has left thousands of children orphaned and an estimated 5 million out of school.

The armed conflicts around the world are having a devastating impact on the lives of children from those regions. Youngsters are dying in growing numbers and childhood itself is being destroyed. At the height of Israel's Gaza offensive in July, the United Nations noted with alarm that a child was dying every hour. In a punishing war now in its fourth year, even the youngest of Syrians are in the snipers' sights. Instead of learning to read and write, children are learning about all types of weapons. Most know the names of bullets, tracers and rubber bullets; many spend days on empty stomach. Such is the new and troubling "normal" for children living in war zones.

In the words of a nine year-old refugee in a camp in southern Turkey, a world steeped in the Free Syrian Army, "I'm only a child in age and appearance, but in terms of morals and humanity, I'm not. In the past, a 12-year-old was considered young, but not now. Now, at 12 years, you must go for jihad." He has a teenage brother who's already joined the fight across the border.

The physical damage of attacks against schools is quantifiable – destruction of educational infrastructure represents a financial cost for a government. But it is the human cost that is greatest.

A single attack on a school can keep hundreds of children out of the classroom, potentially destroying a community’s only place of learning and a principal hub. In the worst scenarios, a combination of attacks on education and wider conflicts can potentially deprive an entire generation of children of a good-quality education. Moreover, attacks on teachers deprive children and schools of teachers – essential actors in children’s learning, and role models.

Girls and female teachers can be at higher risk of sexual violence, including rape, committed by armed actors. In several conflict-affected countries, this risk has proved a deterrent to female participation in education, both by teachers and pupils. Furthermore, girls and female teachers subjected to sexual violence, including those who become pregnant as a result of rape, are often prevented from attending school because of stigma.

In Syrian refugee camps of Jordan, there is an alarming rise in the number of girls being forced into early marriages, according to the United Nations. Almost one third (32%) of registered marriages involve a girl under 18, while the same group constituted only 13% of marriages in pre-war Syria. Although some families marry off their daughters because of tradition, but the UN says most are driven by poverty.

Organized trade in young girls, driven by clientele from the Gulf States, is sprouting up outside the refugee camps. They prey on refugee families, living in rented accommodation, who are struggling to get by. Local sources say the going rate for a bride is between 2,000 and 10,000 Jordanian dinars ($2,800/£1,635 to $14,000/£8,180) with another 1,000 ($1,400/£818) going to the broker. The 14- and 15-year old girls appear to be in highest demand, though 12- and 13-year old are also being sought. Most clients are 30-50 year male. Many of these girls are being abandoned as soon as they become pregnant.

According to psychiatrists, children exposed to traumatic events like war, often have distorted views of incidents. For example, they might blame themselves or their neighbors and the consequences are very detrimental to their mental health. Every child of age six years and above living in Gaza has experienced at least three wars.

In 2000, as part of the Millennium Development Goals, the world set itself the ambitious target of ensuring that every primary-age child in the world would be in school by 2015. Well, the world is on the doorstep of that chosen date. In spite of the significant progress made in the new millennium, it appears that the international community will fall short of this goal. In 2011, 57 million primary-age children worldwide were reported to be out of school.

With pencil in the cross hairs, the millennium goal now appears far-fetched.



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