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Military Use of Schools in War Zones

Last week me and my family went to Mingora, Swat to visit my grandparents. We were driving by the Jamaal English Education Academy (JEEA) in Chakdara, Swat when my father mentioned how that college and several other schools were used by the Pakistan Army as their base during the Taliban Insurgency of 2009. At that moment, I didn’t think much of it but last night I decided to do a little research to see if this was a common thing during war times. I was surprised to find that schools are often intentionally used as military bases due to their somewhat protected status. Schools in at least 26 armed conflicts spanning across four continents have been used for military purposes over the last decade.

Schools and children are protected under the laws of war as well as international human rights laws. As outlined in the 1949 Geneva Convention, occupying powers must facilitate the proper working of all institutions devoted to the care and education of children and even provide education for children who are displaced because of war. But, although international law heavily restricts the military use of schools, they are still regularly attacked or used as bases by both rebels and state security forces.

So, this begs the question, why are SCHOOLS used as battlegrounds during conflicts?

Well, there are many reasons. Firstly, Schools and universities are ideal locations for military headquarters and facilities and can become central to war efforts. Schools are also soft targets, and the targeting of children is very effective in campaigns of terror, having a destabilising effect on communities. This makes them key military targets for opposing sides. Moreover, Schools can be seen by armed groups to represent state authority, and are therefore key targets in campaigns against the government. This is especially true when the groups disagree with the form of education being provided.

This reality is perhaps best illustrated by Boko Haram,which, in 2015 committed to the cause of Islamic State and renamed itself as ‘the Islamic State of West Africa’. Targeting schools and abducting children is a core strategy of the group, whose extremist beliefs oppose such education as sinful, and particularly object to the education of girls.

Even though the UN has declared this practice as one of the 6 grave violations of war, it still persists.

What do you guys make of this? How can the UN or the rest of the world curb this practice of using schools as battlegrounds?

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This is very surprising and I'm glad you brought this up. In all of our study, I was only aware of the protective nature of schools, and how through their use as protection or safezones during conflict. I did not know that it went the other way around as well, which is heartbreaking. Because not only that directly takes away any chance of access to education for the children in the area, but even after the conflict, the remnants of the conflict I am sure tend to remain, which again leave a scarring impact on the student. Imagine seeing gunshot scars on the walls of your classroom. Barely the thought of knowing that your Physics classroom was once a hideout…

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I think a solution to this could be the UN and other Transnational organisations with the help of local governments coming up with policies that try to prevent the use of educational institutions in the event of a conflict. Also, A big chunk of the humanitarian aid needs to be allocated to rebuilding of schools that have already been affected by wars.

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