Education Under Attack 2022 – Pandemic fails to stop violence

The COVID-19 pandemic and the closure and then reopening of schools and universities played a key role in an upsurge of violence on campuses, with more than 9,000 students and educators abducted, arbitrarily arrested, injured or killed in armed conflicts around the world during 2020 and 2021, according to a damning new report.

Violent attacks and military use of schools and education institutions increased by a third globally over the last two years, with teachers and students often caught in the firing line, a shocking report from the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA)* has revealed.

Published on 1 June 2022, Education under Attack 2022 describes itself as “the most comprehensive report on attacks on education globally” and covers the period from January 2020 to the end of last year – the two-years coinciding with the start and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw schools and higher education institutions subjected to lockdowns and campus closures.

Some violations increased

However, far from slowing down armed attacks on education, some violations increased as armed forces and non-state armed groups took advantage of vacant education campuses and schools for military purposes, including in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sudan and Syria, says the report.

And when students and educators protested over policies relating to the closure or reopening of schools and universities during the pandemic, police forces in many countries responded with excessive force including the use of water cannons and teargas against protesters.

Elsewhere, in countries such as Colombia and Palestine, after lockdown measures were lifted, schools and education buildings damaged during attacks experienced delayed reopenings, or reopened with damaged facilities, said the Education Under Attack 2022 report.

Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mali and Palestine were the countries most affected, with each experiencing more than 400 threatened or actual attacks on education establishments.

Two weeks in May 2021

The report’s executive summary says two weeks in May 2021 “underscore the unrelenting pace and far-reaching effects of these violent attacks” on education establishments.

“First, on 8 May 2021, an attack on a girls’ school in Kabul, Afghanistan, killed or injured over 320 people, the majority of whom were reportedly schoolgirls.

“Just a day after the funeral for victims of the Kabul attack, news emerged of escalating hostilities in Palestine. Between 10 and 21 May 2021, a staggering 290 education facilities were damaged or destroyed there.

“Meanwhile, on 17 May 2021, an armed group reportedly abducted 11 teachers and staff from a vocational training centre in the northwest region of Cameroon; on that same day, two schools were bombed in Myanmar, according to media reports, and two days later, in Colombia, security forces allegedly fired live ammunition at protesters in a school.

“In that same week, an armed group raided a primary school in Mali and stole teachers’ personal effects. Soon after, on 20 May 2021, bombs struck a school in Yemen, killing four children.

“These events in May 2021 were not exceptional. On average, six attacks on education or cases of military use of schools were recorded daily over the past two years.”

Fewer harmed during height of pandemic

However, despite attacks on education and military use of schools increasing by one third in 2020 compared to 2019, and remaining at the same rate in 2021, the number of people harmed in attacks and military use declined by half in 2020 compared to 2019 before doubling in 2021 to pre-pandemic levels.

The report notes: “One explanation for the decline in the number of people harmed in 2020 may be that fewer students or staff were present in schools or universities when attacks occurred.

“Alternatively, with students and teachers out of schools due to the pandemic, armed groups and armed forces opposed to education no longer needed to violently prevent their attendance.

“As students and educators resumed in-person learning in 2021, the number of people harmed was similar to in years prior to the pandemic.”

The Education Under Attack 2022 report is the sixth in a series examining 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.

The latest edition includes profiles of the 28 most conflict-affected countries, which experienced at least 10 cases of attacks or military use over the two years under review. The review period predates the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Key findings include:

• In 2020 and 2021, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack identified more than 5,000 reported attacks on education and cases of military use of schools and universities. This compares to 4,300 reported incidents in 2018 and 2019.

• More than 9,000 students and educators were abducted, arbitrarily arrested, injured or killed in these events.

• Attacks and military use of schools globally increased by one third in 2020 and continued at this heightened rate in 2021.

• Around 2,300 students, teachers or education personnel were reportedly arrested or detained.

• More than 570 reported cases of military use of educational facilities occurred in 24 countries, turning education centres into targets and putting students and educators at risk. Cases of military use more than doubled as compared to 2018 and 2019.

• Female students and educators were directly targeted because of their gender in at least 11 countries, with reports of sexual violence at, or on the way to or from, school or university in seven countries, including six profiled in this report: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Colombia, DRC, Nigeria, Rwanda and Turkey.

• In 2020 and 2021, the Global Coalition identified reports of child recruitment at, or on the way to or from, school in four countries: Colombia, DRC, Mali and Yemen.

The report highlighted 320 incidents of attacks on higher education in countries profiled in the findings, with both repression of education-related protests and attacks on more than 80 higher education facilities recorded in 2020-21.

There were also 240 reported attacks directed at university students and personnel.

The report found attacks on the rise in countries including Burkina Faso, Colombia, Ethiopia, Mali, Myanmar and Nigeria, and emergent in others such as Mozambique and Azerbaijan, while downward trends were identified in South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Since the period under review, attacks on education have intensified, with more than 1,000 schools and universities being damaged in Ukraine since 24 February 2022, when the Russian invasion began, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science and civil society groups.

‘Stop using schools and universities for military purposes’

Diya Nijhowne, GCPEA executive director, told University World News: “It is crucial for governments and armed groups to end attacks on education, and stop using schools and universities for military purposes.

“Governments should investigate attacks and prosecute those responsible for abuses. In post- COVID-19 ‘back to school’ campaigns, they need to fully integrate students affected by attacks, expanding alternative education programmes developed during the pandemic as necessary.”

“Attacks have included bombing and burning schools and universities, and killing, injuring, raping, abducting, arbitrarily arresting and recruiting students and educators at or near educational institutions, during armed conflict, said Nijhowne.

In Palestine, air-launched and ground-launched strikes damaged a quarter of Gaza’s schools during an escalation of hostilities in May 2021.

In Nigeria, more than 1,000 students or educators were reportedly abducted, injured or killed during 2020 and 2021.

Any hope that the COVID-19 pandemic might slow attacks on education were dashed, with armed forces and non-state armed groups taking advantage of vacant schools to use them for military purposes, said Nijhowne.

The use of schools and universities by armed forces and non-state armed groups more than doubled in 2020 and 2021 as compared with the previous two years, with education buildings used as barracks, detention centres or for military operations. Myanmar had more than 200 such cases, mostly after the February 2021 military coup.

Declaration to safeguard education

Nijhowne said the report was being released on the seventh anniversary of the Safe Schools Declaration, a political commitment to protect education in armed conflict, endorsed by 114 countries.

“By joining the declaration, countries commit to taking concrete steps to safeguard education, including by using the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use During Armed Conflict.”

Since the declaration was opened for endorsement in 2015, governments and their partners have made tangible improvements in law and practice to protect education from attack. But more than one third of the countries profiled in the report are not signatories, she stressed.

“As attacks on schools and universities, their students and educators, continue to occur in both new and protracted conflicts, the Safe Schools Declaration, on its seventh anniversary, remains a critical tool.

“All governments should endorse and implement the declaration to save lives and safeguard the right to education for all, including those in the most-dire situations of war,” said Nijhowne.

* The GCPEA coalition includes the chair of Save the Children, Amnesty International, the Education Above All Foundation, Human Rights Watch, the Institute of International Education, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Plan International, the United Nations Children’s Fund and UNESCO.

The Education Under Attack 2022 findings are the result of independent research conducted by individual GCPEA members supported by the Education Above All Foundation, Education Cannot Wait, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and an anonymous donor. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the Steering Committee organisation, the report makes clear.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at