State schools are destroying the Indian education system

Schools as theaters of war

By Zama Coursen-Neff and Bede Sheppard

Of the 72 million primary school children around the world who are currently out of school, more than half - 39 million - live in countries where armed conflict is raging. In many of these countries armed groups are threatening and killing students and teachers, and setting fire to and bombing schools. This is done for tactical reasons. Government security forces use schools as bases and quarters in military operations. They put students at risk and undermine the educational system.

In southern Thailand, separatist rebels have set schools on fire at least 327 times since 2004, and government forces occupied at least 79 schools in 2010. Hundreds of teachers involved in trade unions have been murdered in Colombia over the past decade. The perpetrators were often pro-government members of paramilitary groups and other parties in the ongoing conflict between the government and rebel groups. In the north of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) kidnapped countless children from schools. In revenge against villages whose residents they suspected of helping LRA defectors, they ransacked schools and burned them down.

“We advise you to quit your teaching position as soon as possible. Otherwise we will behead your children and burn your daughter, "read a threatening letter from Taliban rebels in Afghanistan. Between March and October 2010, 20 schools there were attacked with explosives or by arson, and rebels killed 126 students.

The brutal images of attacks on schools, teachers and students in Afghanistan are vividly before the eyes of the international public: men on motorbikes attack students, girls are doused with acid. Targeted attacks on education, however, are as far-reaching as they are neglected phenomena. They are not limited to individual countries, but are a widespread problem in global armed conflicts. Experts from Human Rights Watch have reported attacks on students, teachers and schools - and their consequences for education - in Afghanistan, Colombia, the DRC, India, Nepal, Burma, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand. The United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO) reports that attacks occurred in at least 31 countries between 2007 and 2009.

Few non-state armed forces publicly endorse such attacks. At the same time, little is done to document them, raise awareness of them and prevent them. Nor is the full extent of the negative consequences of long-term military occupation of schools known. Access to education is increasingly seen as an important part of humanitarian disaster protection, especially in the event of mass displacement and natural disasters. The fact that schools, teachers and pupils in conflict regions need to be protected from willful attacks has only recently come into the focus of international actors. Humanitarian aid organizations are becoming increasingly concerned about the damage and consequential damage caused by such attacks. Human rights groups have also begun to grapple with them, mostly in the context of protecting civilians in armed conflict and promoting economic and social rights, including the right to education.

Effective action against attacks on education requires specific policies, courageous government action, and a much larger international effort. Effective action must be taken by governments, opposition groups, and other organizations to make students, teachers, and schools banned zones for armed non-governmental groups and regular armies. These include strict monitoring mechanisms, preventive interventions, rapid reactions to incidents and the conviction of attackers by national and international courts.

Why schools, teachers and students are attacked

Non-governmental armed groups target schools, teachers and students for a variety of reasons. Rebel groups often regard schools and teachers as symbols of the state. In fact, schools in rural areas are often the only visible government structures that perform various tasks. For example, armed opposition groups attacked schools in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan that were also used as polling stations.

Teachers and schools are highly visible, "soft" targets. They are more easily attacked than state security forces, and attacks quickly attract media attention to killers and their political concerns. At the same time, they undermine confidence in the government's protective power Teachers as symbols of a repressive education system. A teacher from Thailand told Human Rights Watch how he came into the firing line of both parties in the separatist conflict there, pressured by Muslim insurgents for teaching in a state school as a Muslim threatened local government paramilitary forces for allegedly supporting the insurgents, and was shot and seriously injured by unknown perpetrators on his way home from his mosque shortly after the conversation.

Schools are sometimes attacked because the armed groups refuse the educational content they teach, or because of the students who are taught in them. Schools in some states have been targeted because their curricula have been viewed as secular or "Western", or simply because they educate girls. Not all violence is ideologically motivated. Criminals often have an interest in eliminating competing sources of authority. and some attacks are based on local conflicts that are not always educational.

For rebels, paramilitary and other groups, schools and school trips are worthwhile targets for recruiting, indoctrinating or sexually abusing children as soldiers. For example, Human Rights Watch observed that Maoist rebels use various methods to recruit children during the ongoing civil war in Nepal. In particular, they abducted large groups of children, often from schools, in order to indoctrinate them.

The consequences of attacks

The effects of attacks can be devastating. Countless teachers and students can be injured and traumatized, in some cases killed. Attacks also often lead to a dramatic drop in the number of children who regularly attend school. If only a few children attend school over a long period of time, this has a negative impact on the economy and on key development indicators such as maternal and child health.

In the worst case, hundreds of schools will be closed. The Afghan Ministry of Education reported in March 2009 that an estimated 570 schools were permanently closed after attacks by the Taliban or other insurgents. Thousands of students are denied their right to education.

In addition, attacks can damage buildings and teaching materials. Before the school can reopen, extensive repairs and costly new purchases may be required. Unless the facility is closed completely, classes are canceled for days or weeks, sometimes even longer. If it takes place again, it is often in dangerous, partially destroyed buildings or in the open air. Other services that are important to the local community and offered in school buildings, such as adult education or health services, can also be lost.

When governments fail to rebuild destroyed school buildings after an attack, the negative consequences are even greater. In India, not a single school attacked by Maoist rebels (known as Naxalites) that Human Rights Watch attended in 2009 received government assistance in repairing or rebuilding. The attacks had taken place between two and six months before the visits, and the government had announced that the funds needed to rebuild were in place.

Attacks on schools and teachers traumatize students and affect teachers' job performance. Even if the school buildings are not damaged or the necessary infrastructure has been restored, teachers and students sometimes do not return out of fear. Some highly qualified teachers also refuse to work in the region in question, so that the remaining teachers are heavily overburdened.

Residents of the rural state of Bihar, India, told Human Rights Watch how a large group of Maoists blew up the middle school in their city. In response, the local paramilitary police set up a camp in the intact parts of the building. School lessons are now held in a tent where the children are partially exposed to the elements, there are no toilets and it is impossible to offer the lunch prescribed by the government. "When people hear about these problems, they take their children out of [school]," one mother told Human Rights Watch.

Attacks can also have a noticeable impact on other schools in the area and affect how parents and students weigh the costs and benefits of going to school. In conflict areas, the quality of the education system and school instruction is often poor, while families are highly sensitive to violence. After two teachers in southern Thailand were murdered on their way to the local market in September 2010, the teachers' association suspended classes in all state schools in the region for three days.

Even threats are an effective way of closing schools in regions where violence is widespread and perpetrators are not held accountable. A teacher in rural Laghman Province, Afghanistan, told Human Rights Watch that a third of her students dropped out after a so-called “night letter” was left in a mosque. He threatened the community, “We advise you, your girls not to send more to this class. Otherwise you won't be able to imagine the consequences. The school will blow up, and if one of your daughters is raped you shouldn't be surprised. "

Use of schools for military purposes

The use of school buildings by national armed forces or other armed groups is closely related to targeted attacks on schools. Due to their central location, their solid structure and their electrical and sanitary facilities, some security forces occupy schools for weeks, months or even years. Government troops are using dozens of schools in the Indian states of Bihar and Jharkhand as outposts in the conflict with Maoist rebels. Of these school occupations, all of Human Rights Watch's 2009-2010 school occupations lasted anywhere from six months to three years. The military use of schools not only interrupts the education of students, but sometimes also provokes attacks by oppositional forces.

Even if there are no classes in schools, their military use is problematic. Attacks by opposition groups can destroy school infrastructure and blur the line between civilian and military facilities, leaving schools a potential target even if lessons continue. When security forces occupy a school, its buildings and grounds are often fortified and militarized, for example by building fortified guardhouses, digging trenches or building protective walls made of barbed wire and sandbags. When the troops leave the schools, these fortifications are often left behind. This puts the schools in permanent danger because they continue to give the appearance of a military presence.

Sometimes security guards completely displace the students. In none of the cases investigated by Human Rights Watch has the government made any effort to provide alternative educational facilities of comparable quality to students displaced by military occupation.

In other cases, the military only occupies certain areas of schools so that lessons can continue in the unoccupied rooms. Such partial occupation of schools is also problematic. In partially occupied schools in India and southern Thailand visited by Human Rights Watch, students, teachers and parents complained of a variety of problems, from overcrowded classrooms to the loss of kitchens that previously served lunch to the inability to use the school toilets (missing Access to toilets is a globally recognized factor that contributes to a lower school attendance rate for girls). Schoolchildren try to continue their education despite the presence of armed men. Their frequent misconduct - for example hitting suspects in front of schoolchildren, gambling, alcohol and drug consumption - is diametrically opposed to a safe and positive learning environment for children.

As soon as security guards move in, there is typically an immediate exodus of students. And long-term occupation prevents new registrations. Girls seem to drop out of schools more often and to be enrolled in them less often, partly for fear of harassment by the occupation soldiers or police officers. For example, students and teachers in Jharkhand and Bihar, India, complained that members of the security forces bathed in underwear in front of girls. Girls in southern Thailand told us that paramilitary rangers asked them for the phone numbers of their older sisters. Such behavior obviously does not belong in educational institutions.

International standards for the protection of education

International human rights norms - namely the Convention on the Rights of the Child that has been ratified by numerous states and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights - oblige states to provide compulsory, freely accessible and free primary education as well as the provision and accessibility of further education to guarantee. The contracting states should gradually improve the regular attendance in class and reduce the drop-out rates of boys and girls. To ensure the right to education, states must prevent and respond to attacks by non-state armed groups so that schools work and children have access to education. Attacks on students, teachers and schools also violate various national laws.

In situations that can be classified as armed conflict, international humanitarian law - the law of war - continues to apply. International humanitarian law binds all parties to the conflict, both on the part of the government and on the part of opposition armed groups. Applicable law includes the Geneva Convention of 1949 and its two additional protocols, as well as customary international law. In international humanitarian law, schools and other educational institutions are civilian institutions that are protected from arbitrary attacks as long as they are not used by those involved in the war for military purposes at the time of attack. Accordingly, a school that serves as a headquarters or an arsenal is a military object and therefore a legitimate target.

International humanitarian law also prohibits acts of violence or the threat of violence if they are used solely for the purpose of terrorizing the civilian population.

When government troops or non-state armed groups occupy schools in an armed conflict, they are obliged to take all possible precautions to protect civilians from attack and, if necessary, to evacuate them. It is illegal to use schools as armed bases and as educational institutions at the same time. The longer a school cannot be used for educational purposes, the greater the government's obligation to ensure the right to education of the students concerned by other means. When a facility ceases to serve as a school, authorities must move teachers and students to a safe place where lessons can continue. Otherwise, they deny the children their right to education to which they are entitled under international human rights standards.

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National and international action is required in three areas to end attacks on schools, teachers and students:

  • stronger surveillance systems;
  • targeted preventive measures and more decisive, faster responses to incidents; and
  • effective legal mechanisms to punish violations of national and international law.


Acknowledging the problem is the first step necessary to more effectively deter attacks on the education system. This includes clear public statements from officials and, where possible, from rebel leaders. They must make it clear that attacks on students and teachers are prohibited and that the educational facilities may only be used for military purposes to a limited extent. Government policy and the regulation of the military use of schools in conflict regions are too often contradicting or lacking altogether. A notable positive example is the Philippines, where attacks against educational institutions are explicitly classified as a crime and the use of school buildings as command posts, for military units, as warehouses and other forms of military facilities is prohibited.

In addition, sufficient information plays a central role. Officials need to put in place surveillance systems to ensure attacks on schools, teachers and students are recorded. It is impossible to adequately respond to a problem when its magnitude is unknown. Attacks against educational institutions too often fall into protection gaps and are not properly recorded by the responsible authorities. Therefore, they are not recognized as a systematic problem that requires separate monitoring and coordinated responses. And while governments are in the best position to monitor attacks, some of them lack the capacity or will to do so, or are responsible for attacks themselves. In such cases, the UN or other international actors must take action.

International surveillance is particularly important in "overlooked" conflicts, including low-level conflicts where there are no major evictions but attacks on educational institutions. The military, embassies, political services and other institutions active in peace and security must encourage this Observe and monitor access to and attacks on the education system and make it clear that access to education in conflict situations is a key indicator of security.

The UN Security Council's Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM) on children in armed conflict provides a mechanism that could exert far-reaching influence. The prerequisite for this is that it is more focused on attacks against educational institutions. The MRM was established in 2005 and currently operates in 13 countries. He collects information on the spot about the mistreatment of children in armed conflict and forwards it to the Security Council. This gives them the opportunity to take more targeted and effective action against parties who violate the rights of children in armed conflicts. For example, it can decide on sanctions and arms embargoes and refer cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court.

Currently, the MRM only takes action when there is evidence of war crimes of recruiting child soldiers, sexual violence against children in war, and killing and maiming children. However, once established in a country, the Mechanism ‘also needs to report on other violations of children's rights, including attacks on the education system. The Security Council has rightly called on parties to the conflict to refrain from "attacking or threatening to attack school children and teachers and using schools for military operations that are prohibited under applicable international law"[1] to be foreseen. However, he has made far fewer recommendations on education through the MRM than on higher-priority issues such as child soldiers. The MRM also does not work in some countries such as southern Thailand and India, where school buildings and school staff are repeatedly attacked.

With the support of the MRM, the UN has made a substantial contribution to reducing the number of child soldiers. She has negotiated plans of action with governments and armed groups to demobilize children and prevent their recruitment. In order to achieve similar success against attacks on educational institutions, the country teams under the leadership of the UN that monitor children's rights violations in armed conflicts should improve their monitoring of attacks on the education system and its families. This is the basis for providing the Security Council with more information and recommendations for action. In addition, the Security Council should consider attacks on the education system as a "trigger" to initiate an MRM.

Preventive measures and quick response

When attacks occur or even appear possible, officials must take immediate action to protect teachers and students from further harm. For example, increasing civil society participation in the construction and management of schools can provide education providers with the information they need to better defend themselves against attacks and increase the community's willingness to support their schools. Other steps include hiring private security guards or escorts for school buildings and transport to schools, finding alternative school facilities and timetables, forbidding the military or police use of educational institutions and agreeing with all parties to the conflict that schools should be protected and protected in accordance with international humanitarian law represent demilitarized zones. In some cases, influential religious leaders can influence oppositional groups, for example by taking a public stand, participating in school activities, or working with local community leaders.

The "Schools as Zones of Peace" initiative and the "Partnerships for Protecting Children in Armed Conflict" (PPCC) from Nepal are often cited as examples of effective cooperation between non-governmental organizations and international bodies. Among other things, you have helped to keep armed groups out of schools. In contrast, in Afghanistan in 2009 the appeal by a group of humanitarian organizations and the education minister went unheeded that schools should only be used as polling stations in exceptional cases. They justified their call with data on relevant attacks. According to the Ministry of Education, 26 of the 2,742 schools used as polling stations were attacked on election day.

A swift government response to an attack, particularly building repairs and replacing materials, is important to mitigate the effects and allow students to return to class as soon as possible. A "toolkit" of tried and tested preventive measures and responses can support these governments' efforts.


Finally, it is crucial that attacks on educational institutions and their representatives are prosecuted. All states must criminalize attacks on schools in national law and in military codes of conduct. The military use and occupation of schools must also be handled more restrictively. For example, the UK Department of Defense Handbook on Armed Conflict Law specifically addresses the protection of educational institutions.[2] Attacks on schools are considered illegal unless they are used for military purposes. It also emphasizes that "the use of a protected building for inappropriate purposes" is a "war crime under customary humanitarian law"[3] represents. The Supreme Court in India and numerous Indian states have also ordered that police units and paramilitary forces involved in military operations should evacuate schools. However, the security forces often ignored these orders.

The national prosecution of attacks, including those by non-state actors, is essential. For example, an Ituri military tribunal in the DRC in August 2006 found Ives Kahwa Panga Mandro ("Chief Kahwa"), founder of the Party for the Unity and Protection of the Integrity of the Congo, guilty of targeted attacks on six counts, including war crimes commanding a primary school, church and hospital, citing a provision in the Congolese Constitution that allows courts and military tribunals to apply international treaties, referring directly to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, including the targeted one Attacking educational institutions is considered a war crime and Kahwa was sentenced to 20 years in prison.[4] However, an appeals court overturned the judgment on a dubious legal and factual basis.[5] The proceedings are currently pending.

If national governments are unwilling or unable to prosecute attacks on schools, international courts can play an important role in bringing criminals to justice and preventing future violations of the law. For example, the International Criminal Court is expressly responsible for cases of willful attacks on educational institutions that are not used for military purposes in international and national conflicts. The court has so far not included attacks on educational institutions in its charges. It should pay particular attention to this issue in its investigations and monitor cases where such attacks are among the most serious crimes to affect the international community and are large enough to warrant an investigation by the International Criminal Court.

Outside of formal legal mechanisms, investigative, truth and reconciliation commissions are supposed to deal with attacks on educational institutions. For example, the final report of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission published in 1998 found that numerous state and non-state actors bombed, burned and occupied schools and insulted and killed teachers. Numerous criminals admitted their involvement in attacks against schools, students and teachers before the commission.

The Children's Rights Committee, which oversees the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is also well placed to raise awareness that attacks and occupations violate the right to education. He has already highlighted the problem in at least four countries: Burundi, Ethiopia, Israel and Moldova.[6] As a next step, the committee should publish a "General Comment" expanding and commenting on the provisions of the Convention. In 2008, the Committee organized a discussion on education and emergencies in order to collect information and recommendations that could be summarized in a "General Comment "could enter. An interpretation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child can help states protect students, teachers and schools in a state of emergency. In addition, it would provide the Committee and other international and national institutions with clear standards on the basis of which they can judge government actions.


In too many countries warring parties can attack schools, teachers and students without facing any consequences. It is the affected teachers, students and families who ultimately have to deal with the consequences on their own. This results in long-term damage for the entire affected community.

In 2010 a new international coalition was launched to protect the education of UN institutions, humanitarian organizations and civil society groups. Their emergence shows that the problem is attracting increasing attention.[7] Concrete measures can already be derived from the coalition's previous experience by means of which governments can minimize attacks on the education system and its members. However, the national and international approach must be better focused and coordinated in order to protect schools, teachers and students in the long term.

As one tribal elder in Helmand Province, Afghanistan noted, “People want schools, including for girls. We are gambling away the future of our children right now. "

Zama Coursen-Neff is assistant director, child rights division, Human Rights Watch; Bede Sheppard is a research fellow in the department.

[1] United Nations Security Council, "Presidential Statement on Children and Armed Conflict ", UN Doc. S / PRST / 2009/9, April 29, 2009.

[2] UK Ministry of Defense, Manual of the Law of Armed Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[3] Ibid., 16.16.1, 16.29 (c), pp. 428-29, n. 122.

[4] Tribunal Militaire de Garrison de l'Ituri, Jugement Contre Kahwa Panga Mandro, RPA No. 039/2006, RMP No. 227 / PEN / 2006 (August 2, 2006).

[5] Cour Militaire de la Province Orientale, Arrêt Contre Kahwa Panga Mandro, RPA No. 023/2007, RMP 227 / PEN / 2006 (July 28, 2007).

[6] United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), UN Committee on the Rights of the Child: Concluding Observations, Burundi, CRC / C / 15 / Add. 133 (October 16, 2000), paras. 64-65; CRC, UN Committee on the Rights of the Child: Concluding Observations, Ethiopia, CRC / C / ETH / CO / 3 (November 1, 2006), paras. 27-28; CRC, UN Committee on the Rights of the Child: Concluding Observations, Israel, CRC / C / 15 / Add.195 (October 9, 2002), para. 52; CRC, Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under Article 44 of the Convention: Convention on the Rights of the Child: 2nd and 3rd Periodic Reports of States Parties Due in 2005: Republic of Moldova, CRC / C / MDA / 3 (July 10, 2008), Paragraphs 423 and 435.

[7] The International Coalition for Protecting Education from Attack (GCEA) includes the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, Education Above All, Education International, Human Rights Watch, Save the Children International, UNESCO, and UNICEF, the UN Children's Fund. The coalition wants to raise awareness of the scope of attacks on education and their consequences and is committed to more effective international action.