Forest Whitaker is an actor and UNESCO Special Envoy, and Irina Bokova is Director-General of UNESCO.
Two years ago, we crossed South Sudan together and saw the impact of conflict on school children of all ages, traumatized, without skills or hope. At the Protection of Civilians site in Juba, we talked to girls and boys about what they had suffered and what they wanted. They all said the same thing: education.
Education is on the front line of conflict today. School children are forced into militias. They are kidnapped and enslaved. Their teachers are abducted and killed. Classrooms have become torture chambers — playgrounds are used to stockpile weapons.
The world is shocked by the plight of school children in Syria and by the attacks of Boko Haram and al-Shabab. But the scope of this challenge goes far beyond that. Between 2009 and 2013, there have been attacks on schools and universities in more than 70 countries. About 1.5 billion people live in fragile or conflict-affected countries — 40% of them are young people. Refugees are hit hardest — half of primary-age children are out of school and three-quarters of secondary age do not have access to education.
Every child attacked is a blow to the humanity we all share and the dignity to which we all aspire. This massive human-rights crisis blights the future of millions of young people and throws a shadow over entire countries and regions.
The world cannot afford to lose entire young generations to despair. This entrenches the logic of war. Young people lacking an education face a future of poverty — and poverty has always been a recruiting sergeant for extremism and violence.
We know the power of education to give peace to young minds, to provide a sense of safety and a normal life. Going to school is a source of hope, nourishing curiosity and dreams, giving young people tools to rebuild. Education is the best long-term way to break cycles of violence and set communities on the path to peace — but it is falling through the cracks.
Education is often the first budget line cut by governments facing conflict, and it accounts for only 2% of humanitarian aid. No sector has a smaller share of humanitarian appeals actually funded.
To tackle this crisis, governments must commit to protect schools and universities and not use them for military purposes. One year ago, countries, led by Norway and Argentina, agreed on the Safe Schools Declaration. To date, 53 states have endorsed the declaration — we need every one to sign up.
Our priority must be to stop these appalling violations of human rights. We should not allow attacks on children, systematic rape, or the destruction of school facilities to go without punishment. Governments must bring those responsible to account, and the U.N. must do its part — to monitor, report and investigate.
Education cannot remain the poor cousin of international efforts. We need to invest more in education as part of humanitarian and development assistance. Education is the best way to protect the green shoots of peace. It is often the first real peace dividend for girls and boys and communities struggling to get back on their feet.
This is why the world will come together in Istanbul, at the World Humanitarian Summit, to establish the new Education Cannot Wait — a fund for education in emergencies. There is a $2.3 billion funding gap for education in conflict and crisis situations, representing 10 times what education receives from humanitarian aid at present. The new fund will spotlight education, to build it into emergency responses and development aid. This is key to move forward the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Education must rise on the agenda of peace building. To unlock education’s potential to nurture peace, we must support inclusive education systems that reach out to all groups and that teach human rights and new forms of global citizenship. We need to get this right to allow societies to escape the nightmares of history, to give young people every chance.
This is what we are trying to do in Juba, to give schoolchildren access to sports, culture and, most of all, education. Because, as one boy told us, they don’t just want peace — they want to build it themselves.
This is our message to the World Humanitarian Summit. Education is on the front line of conflict — it should be at the forefront of building peace.