Attacks on schools and universities are on the rise

Deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on schools and universities, their students, and staff have become more widespread over the past five years, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) said in the 2018 edition of its flagship report, released on 10 May.

The 300-page report, Education under Attack 2018, identifies more than 12,700 attacks from 2013 through 2017, harming more than 21,000 students and educators.

Over the past five years, 41 countries suffered at least five attacks on education, including at least one that was intentional or deadly, GCPEA said. This marks a dramatic increase from the 2014 edition of the report, when GCPEA documented 30 countries experiencing this level of attacks on education between 2009 and 2013.

“Teaching and learning has become increasingly dangerous, with the lives of students, teachers and academics frequently put at risk,” said Diya Nijhowne, executive director of GCPEA. “Schools and universities should be safe and protective spaces, but armed forces and armed groups continue to turn them into sites of intimidation and violence.”

The report includes profiles of 28 countries that experienced at least 20 attacks on education from 2013 through 2017. GCPEA found that nine countries either suffered more than 1,000 attacks on education, or suffered attacks that harmed more than 1,000 students, teachers, professors or other education personnel. These include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Israel/Palestine, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Of the profiled countries, higher education facilities were attacked in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Colombia, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Kenya, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Syria, Thailand, Ukraine, Venezuela and Yemen.

Attacks on higher education personnel, including targeted killings, abductions, threats, harassment or violent repression of education-related protests that injured or killed a student or university staff member, were found in 52 countries, including all 28 countries profiled in the report.

The countries with the highest number of reported attacks on higher education facilities were Bangladesh, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. This included attacks with explosives and gunmen targeting university campuses. There were also widely-reported deadly attacks on universities in several other countries, including Pakistan and Kenya, the report says.

For example, explosives were set at the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh at least 35 times between 2013 and 2015. Some incidents involved multiple bombs. The attackers often were not identified.

In Kenya, gunmen from the Somalia-based armed group al-Shabaab killed at least 142 students and injured another 79 on 2 April 2015, when they entered Garissa University College, shooting students while they slept and taking others hostage before killing them.

In Pakistan on 15 June 2013, members of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi placed a bomb on a bus carrying university students, which exploded on the campus of Sardar Bahadur Khan Women’s University in Quetta, Balochistan, killing 14 people and wounding at least 19 others.

Egypt, India, Sudan, Venezuela and Turkey were the countries in which the highest number of students or education personnel were harmed by attacks on higher education. In each of these countries, the most common forms of attack were arrests and detentions related to academic work, and the excessive use of force during education-related protests.

Increasing insecurity and authoritarian actions by the government led to widespread protests across Venezuela. University students were actively engaged in these protests, many of which either took place or began on university campuses.

More than 600 university students were injured in Venezuela when government forces responded with force, or were arrested or detained. Some of those detained faced abuse in detention. For example, Scholars at Risk reported that up to 331 students were abused in police custody in February 2014 alone.

In Egypt, dozens of students, professors and university staff were killed or injured and more than 1,000 were detained or arrested between 2013 and 2017. Amnesty International reported that, according to the Marsad Tolab Horreya (Student Freedom Observatory), at least 200 students were arrested during protests in September and October 2014.

Amy Kapit, GCPEA research director, told University World News: “The violent repression of students and teachers engaged in education-related protests is striking. Repression at the higher education level was widespread across the countries profiled and contributed to some of the highest rates of violence described in the report. Military use of universities also was more prevalent, taking place in about 10 countries.”

Robert Quinn, executive director of Scholars at Risk, told University World News: “The most striking element at the higher education level is that violent attacks on higher education students exercising their rights was the only type of attack reported that was found in every country covered. This shows the tensions around the university space.

“It also shows the fact that state and non-state actors alike understand the importance of the higher education space to shaping the future, and too often use violence to intimidate or silence those who get in their way.

“This should be a wake-up call to responsible states, higher education leaders and civil societies. We must do more to protect higher education communities. We must insist on the principle that seeking an education, asking questions and sharing ideas are not crimes.

“And states, especially, must meet their responsibility to protect higher education communities from attack, including investigating attacks and deterring future attacks by holding perpetrators accountable.”

Trends contributing to violence against education

The study indicates that several trends contributed to the violence against education. These included:
  • • The spread of extremist armed groups, particularly those associated with Islamic State, which were reported to be responsible for attacks on education in 12 out of the 28 countries profiled, including bombings and arson of education facilities and threats targeting students and teachers – especially female students and teachers.

  • • The use of aerial bombardment in fighting armed groups, which caused collateral damage to thousands of schools and universities.

  • • Violence against students and education personnel during school and university protests, affecting thousands of students, teachers and academics.
Kapit said: “Many attacks remain apparently motivated by the desire of security forces and other armed actors to suppress the voices of university students, professors or staff. Rising extremist violence, as well as the increasing use of airstrikes to target civilian areas, also caused considerable damage to university facilities and harm to university students and personnel.”

The spread of violence targeting education occurred within a global context that was significantly less stable than during the previous reporting period, one that saw a greater number of armed conflicts that were more protracted and harmed more people than those in the past.

According to the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) in Norway, the number of armed conflicts increased markedly between 2013 and 2016, from 34 in 2013 to 41 in 2014 and to 52 in 2015, before declining slightly to 49 in 2016.

PRIO data showed that the proliferation of groups affiliated with the Islamic State was the main reason the number of conflicts rose after 2014.

Framework for responses

GCPEA has called on all states to endorse and implement a Safe Schools Declaration – a framework for addressing attacks on education and military use of schools and universities – in response to the findings of its latest Education under Attack report.

The publication of Education under Attack 2018 coincides with the third anniversary of the Safe Schools Declaration, which covers universities as well as schools, and is an intergovernmental commitment to protect education during armed conflict.

So far, 74 states have joined the declaration – more than a third of all UN member states, including more than a third of the African Union and the Organization of American States and more than two-thirds of the European Union.

Education under Attack 2018 is the fourth in a series of publications examining attacks on education, including the threat of, or actual use of, force against students, teachers, professors, education personnel or educational facilities and materials, as well as the military use of schools and universities.

This edition builds on two studies published by UNESCO in 2007 and 2010 and a third study published by GCPEA in 2014.

GCPEA assembled data for the report from UN agencies; development, human rights and humanitarian non-governmental organisations; government bodies; research organisations; media reports, including from University World News; and information shared by country-level experts and working groups.

Brendan O’Malley, currently managing editor of University World News, was the author of the first two Education under Attack studies in 2007 and 2010 and was lead researcher of the 2014 report.