Posted on: 18th February 2015
A new report from the United Nations, Attacks Against Girls Seeking to Access Education, highlights the centrality of violence and discrimination against girls' education as a tool for violent groups, particularly violent extremist and anti-government militias. The status of women and girls is often seen as the yardstick against which society as a whole is judged. It can therefore be used as a pawn by governments and extremists groups.
Factors that often obstruct girls' access to education include: conservative societal norms that confine a woman's role to the home and as a mother; established, detrimental stereotypes on the value of educating girls; fear of violence and discrimination against girls within education systems; and impunity for those who obstruct or prevent girls' access to education.
The status of girls can be seen as the yardstick to measure society.
Girls' education is an acknowledged multiplier right, guaranteeing the education of girls increases gender equality and improves social and economic indicators in other sectors. Many attacks are therefore motivated by the symbolic status attached to girls' education as a vehicle for gender equality, opposed by many ultraconservative religious groups. As such, attacks reflect the perception that mass education acts as a conduit for the implantation of 'foreign' ideas and values.
A 2007 UNESCO report 'Education Under Attack' quotes Anwar Alsaid, programme specialist at UNESCO Kabul, who claims that a key motive for attacks on education in Afghanistan is a belief that the curriculum has been inﬂuenced by the Western powers and therefore will undermine the Afghan identity. However, denying girls' education puts them at increased risk of rights abuses including child and forced marriage, sexual exploitation and trafficking, early pregnancy and domestic violence. This then reinforces and perpetuates the subordinate social status of girls into the next generation.
Girls are often the first victims of lack of education or violence against education systems. Between 2012 and 2014 there were more than 3,600 attacks recorded against schools, teachers and students across 70 countries. A 2011 Education for all Global Monitoring Report found that 55 per cent of children not in school in conflict zones were girls. In total, 31 million girls of school-going age globally were not in education, and 55 per cent of those were expected never to enrol. Among illiterate adults, more than two-thirds (493 million) are women.
In its recommendations the report particularly emphasises the importance of addressing some of the factors that appear to be fuelling violence against girls' education, particularly the political, military, ideological, sectarian and ethnic justifications often cited for attacks against teachers and students:
- In Pakistan public schools are viewed as symbols of government authority and, according to an International Crisis Group report are associated with "promoting western decadence and un-Islamic teachings". Jihadi groups destroying buildings, particularly at girls' schools, have forced terrorised parents to keep their daughters at home. Malala Yousafzai, was shot on her school bus in October 2012 for "promoting secular and anti-Taliban values" by campaigning for girls' education.
- Taliban opposition to education, and in particular female education, stems from an ultraconservative religious ideology, and girls schools in particular are seen as soft targets for furthering the militants' ideological agenda. In the Swat Valley district in 2007, Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, the Swat faction of the Pakistani Taliban, threatened to bomb schools if the region's 120,000 female students attended class. It followed up on threats by destroying 400 of the regions 1,600 schools, around 70 per cent of which were girls' schools. The Taliban movement in Afghanistan attacks girls, schools and female teachers as means to control a community and exerting influence over a territory.
Western education is seen as a western imposition degrading 'correct' social norms.
- Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin rejects western ideas of education, including female education as a western imposition and an institution that degrades 'correct' social norms. The group rejects female education on principle and in many of their attacks on schools have told girls to go home and get married. In contrast, they consider boys in western education to be tainted and corrupt and kill them. The group justifies their actions by claiming Western-style education is un-Islamic and an imperial imposition, and that the education of girls undermines the Islamic character of society.
- Islamist groups in Mali used sexual violence against girls in schools to establish and enforce strict Islamist dress codes when they gained control for a time of large swathes of northern Mali in 2013.
- The Lord's Resistance Army in Central Africa targeted schools to abduct students to use as child soldiers. They targeted educated girls specifically for their skills (commonly using them in communications and logistics as well as porters and 'bush wives'). As schools became unsafe they were closed, parents pulled their daughters out and girls' education became less of a priority for government. More girls were married at young ages as a consequence in an attempt to gain a semblance of protection for them and for a lack of other economic or social opportunities available in insecure situations.
- Refugees from conflict zones, including Yemen, Syria and Iraq, where gender discrimination already exists in society or is met with impunity, experience an increase in the prevalence of harmful stereotypes about the value of educating girls and an increase in the incidences of a wide range of violence against women (forced and child marriage among refugees and displaced communities is very high).
- In southern Thailand, Muslim separatists attacked schools and teachers as symbols of state power and the imposition of an alien language, religion and view of history.
The report emphasises the central role of men and boys in changing societal norms and stereotypes that prevent equality for women and girls, access to and safety within education, and preventing violence against women and girls. Attacks on girls' right to education is often a symptom of broader societal norms, stereotypes and discrimination which education challenges. Only by addressing these stereotypes and discriminations across gender, age and social groups can systemic and sustainable change be made to ensure girls' education and gender equality. Such equality is in turn essential for socio-economic development and integral to open-minded and stable societies.
The full report can be read here.