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Gordon Brown: 'Education without Borders' is a must for kids in conflict zones

Failure to protect the right to education for children in conflict zones fuels violence by drawing children to terrorist groups. In South Sudan, girls are more likely to die in childbirth than make it through primary school. The World Bank and IMF spring meeting must address this.

By Gordon Brown / April 18, 2012

Somali refugee boys eat porridge during break time at the Liban integrated academy at the Ifo refugee camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border August 2, 2011. Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown argues that 'when it comes to education, the international community’s commitment to the rights of children is weakest in precisely those conflict-affected states where support is most urgently needed.'

Thomas Mukoya/Reuters/file

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Every child has a right to an education. Yet millions of children are living in countries where that right is systematically violated as a result of armed conflict. It is time for the international community to stop this state of affairs by getting serious about its responsibility to protect education in all countries, irrespective of the barriers created by armed conflict.

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Education seldom figures in media reporting from conflict zones. Yet the effects are devastating. In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where the education system has collapsed in the face of mass displacement and ongoing violence, more than 1 million children are out of school. When the surge in refugees driven from Somalia by hunger and violence arrived in camps in northern Kenya last year, there was no provision made for additional education. And the conflict in Yemen has pushed tens of thousands of children out of school.

Apart from violating the rights of children, failure to protect the right to education fuels the cycle of violence. One of the greatest fears of Somali mothers in the refugee camps of northern Kenya is that limited opportunities for schooling will draw their children into the ranks of the Al Shabab, the Islamist militant group. You hear similar concerns among refugees from Darfur in the camps of eastern Chad.

Parents living in conflict zones make extraordinary efforts to keep alive the hope that comes with education. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the international community. Currently, less than 2 percent of humanitarian aid is dedicated to education. And it is not just a case of too little aid arriving too late. Agencies trying to provide education in conflict zones have to secure their funding through unpredictable annual appeals processes, where money tends to follow the most recent wave of media interest – and where children living amidst long-running conflicts are seen as yesterday’s news.

South Sudan is the latest country to demonstrate the inadequacy of the current aid architecture for education. In 2005, when a peace agreement ended a brutal 21-year civil war, hopes for a better future were running high. Seven years on, much has been achieved. More than half a million children have entered formal education for the first time. Child death rates have fallen by 20 percent. There have also been improvements in immunization, nutrition, and access to clean water.

Yet despite the progress that has been made, over 80 percent of South Sudan’s population lives on less than $1.25 a day. The country has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Half of primary-school age children are out of school, and just 400 girls make it through to the last grade of secondary school. In fact, girls are more likely to die in childbirth than they are to make it through primary school.

With tensions running high, it is now critical that both sides in the Sudanese region draw back from the brink of conflict and resolve their differences. But South Sudan also needs support for reconstruction. As an all-party committee of the United Kingdom’s parliament noted in a report this week, if South Sudan is to develop as a prosperous, peaceful nation, “it will need to invest in health, education and infrastructure.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in schooling. South Sudan parents have demonstrated extraordinary resolve, innovation, and ambition in attempting to get their children into school. Their efforts are inspiring and humbling in equal measure. Schooling for their children was the most important demand of parents crossing as refugees from Sudan into the new South Sudanese state. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the international aid community.

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