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Conflict - a heavier burden on women than men?

We have grown up listening to the adage that women form the backbone of any country. In conflict zones, women are put on the frontline of attack and are targeted specifically to destabilize the operational and functional capability of a community. As per research, seventy five million children across the globe have been deprived of education as a result of conflict. Amongst these, females are two and a half times more likely to be missing out on school in comparison to their male counterparts. Situations of crisis ensuing as a result of violence pose substantial threats to access of educational facilities for the female populace, arising either through direct or indirect means. The direct means of threat encompass attacks on the female population, whereas indirect means are mainly the byproducts of violence that arise as a result of unprecedented destruction. Conflict, then, influences female education in multiple ways. One of the most common impacts of conflict include targeted attacks on girls within or outside the vicinity of their respective schools, which adversely impacts the possibility for females to pursue further education. During 2014, globally, there were thrice as many attacks on female schools than male schools. However, 2014, is not the only year where women have been made the epicenter of attack by terrorists. In 2012, there was a well-documented attack on Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban in the Swat District of Pakistan. Similarly, in 2014, 276 teenage school-girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria. Both of these attacks were initiated based on similar ideologies whereby the terrorist groups believed that the education of women was against cultural and societal norms. They claimed that women were better suited within the boundaries of their homes and thus could not be treated as equal to men. Such repeated cases of violence against girls, especially in Afghanistan, were cited as the main obstacle to women’s education. In addition to targeted attacks, women are exposed to sexual violence, exploitation and modern slavery in conflict zones. Even when schools are open and operational, there is substantial fear in the hearts of parents that their daughters will be subject to harassment on their way. A recent study in Afghanistan concluded that the main reason why parents don’t send their daughters to school is the fact that they fear for their security. This is also applicable in the context of refugee camps as evidence gathered from Lebanon, Jordan and Sub-Saharan Africa where the major reason for non-attendance stems from fears of sexual violence. In regions such as Syria, Nigeria and Democratic Republic of Congo, girls have been kidnapped and have been used for prostitution, slavery and pornography. Research conducted by the UN further strengthens this hypothesis stating that girls enrolled in school face an increased risk of human trafficking for economic, sexual and military gains. Prevalence of such fears within the masses force them to resort to child marriage as they believe that it will lead to security and stability. For instance, evidence from “Girls not Brides” suggests that child marriage has nearly doubled in Syria and seven out of ten countries with high rates of child marriage are suffering from sustained periods of conflict. As per UNICEF, within women, those with disabilities, tend to suffer more from abandonment from their households during periods of conflict, further reducing enrolment of women in educational institutes.

In order to resolve the problems associated with gender discrimination in the domain of education in conflict zones, it is absolutely imperative that authorities ensure and prioritize the security of girls in and around their school territory. Such initiatives could be taken by making agreements with terror groups to not target female students. Such precedents have been set earlier with various governments demanding that schools be kept separate during periods of war. In addition to that, policy measures should also be focused at reducing the distance to school, securing the physical space of schools and increasing sanitary facilities for women. Moreover, to achieve such drastic objectives, it is key to focus on dismantling conventional, societal norms. This can be achieved via conducting awareness campaigns through social platforms and by encouraging more female teachers to join the workforce. This will also help parents feel comfortable to send their daughters to school. In addition to that, during periods of conflict, governments should also focus on providing alternative forms of education through non-formal channels to ensure that women get their due rights. Such initiatives could include mobile schools, accelerated learning programmes and distance learning. Lastly, providing financial assistance to families in the form of vouchers, fee-free education programmes and school feeding programmes can encourage female enrolment in schools.

Whilst the world is suffering from a plethora of complexities, it can be concluded that gender inequality with respect to access in the domain of education in conflict zones is one of the biggest problems facing us. In order to ensure inter-community harmony and the overall well-being of the society, increased focus should be placed on the lack of female enrolment in conflict zones and initiatives should be taken at a rapid pace. However, I believe that the community at large will only prosper if there is a reform in the mindset of the stakeholders. As long as we have clerics sitting on national television and drawing correlations between the advent of COVID-19 and “qoum ki betiyon ki behayai”, there is not much room for optimism.

The following video provides great insights into women's rights in conflict zones: Source:

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