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Special Report
Last Updated: 08/09/2012
Education for young people in armed conflict
A.B. Pobuwolo Towaye

This paper examines the impact of war on the education of young people in armed conflict and also give a situational analysis of youths and children in armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Colombia and Cambodia. The paper also looks at how the life of youth and children can be restored through reintegration activities, provision of formal and informal education, employment, facilitation of psychosocial training and vocational training opportunities. It provides a gender perspective of how girls and women are mostly vulnerable in conflict times and stresses the implementation of the right to education instruments such as the convention on the Right of the Child, the Human Right Convention, MDG-2, Refugee convention of 1951 and the EFA framework to enhance the education of war affected young people.

An abandoned school desk, Northern Uganda. (UNICEF/NYHQ 2007)

During armed conflict children and youths are brutalized and forcefully recruited to serve armed factions. Armed conflict traumatizes children, leaving deep and lasting scars that can remain far longer than the violence (UNICEF emergency policy for education in emergencies sec.1.1). According to UNICEF, more than 2 million children have died as a direct result of armed conflict and more than 3 times that number have been permanently disabled or seriously injured. The same report estimates that 20 million children have been forced to flee their homes, and more than 1 million have been orphaned or separated from their families, and that 3 hundred thousand child soldiers (boys and girls) under the age of 18 involved in more than 30 conflicts worldwide. Most recently in 2010, 11,393 children (8,624 male and 2,769 female) benefited from reintegration assistance supported by United Nations agencies, funds and program (UN SRSG report /65/741,2010 cited in A/66/256, 2011).

At present, action plans to halt the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict have been signed with 15 State and non-State parties in 8 countries: Afghanistan, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, the Sudan and Uganda. While the literature on education during emergencies makes for interesting, important, and often surprising reading, it tends to be limited in depth and scope and fairly defensive (Aguilar and Retamal 1998, UNESCO 1999 as cited in Sommers 2002).

During the early stages of a humanitarian emergency, it is common to find forced migrant parents and educators developing some sort of education for children in their communities before they receive humanitarian agency recognition, collaboration, and support (Sommer 2002). For children associated with fighting forces to have the opportunity to achieve formal or non formal education they need to go through the reintegration process facilitated by the United Nations through their local commission for disarmament and demobilization. According to a report by USAID in 2007, one of the best education activities available for young people associated with fighting forces is the setting up of transit camps and bridge courses. The transit camps are considered essential as an intermediary step for child soldiers. These camps offer a number of services, such as psycho-social care, medical attention, literacy development, and skill courses. The former young soldiers stay in the transit camps for 6 to 8 weeks or more until they can be reintegrated with their families. Every child irrespective of their region and color has a right to education as stated in the Rights of the Child bill, the Education for All framework, and the Millennium Development Goals. In the words of Jackie (2006):

Quality, relevant education is a right of all children. Children in crisis situations often need new and different knowledge, skills and learning experiences in order to survive and to thrive in changed circumstances. They are particularly vulnerable, facing increased risks of physical and emotional harm.

The impact of war on education for young people: An overview

Wars both internal or external have setback the educational dreams and aspirations of million of young people around the world. This is true for all the continents including the Americas. The cognitive development of children is harmed during war, as skills such as literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking are delayed (Nicolai and Triplehorn 2003). Graca Machel in her study of the impact of armed conflict on children describes how conflict harms children not just physically, but emotionally and socially:

Not only are large numbers of children killed and injured, but countless others grow up deprived of their material and emotional needs, including the structures that give meaning to social and cultural life. The entire fabric of their societies-their homes, schools, health systems and religious institutions-are torn to pieces (cited in Nicolai and Triplehorn 2003).

Due to conflicts, many countries are lagging behind on achieving the Education for All goals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Convention and the second Millennium Development Goal. Enshrined in all relevant instruments is the right to free, compulsory primary education for all children irrespective of color or creed. The fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 states that in situations of military occupation, the occupying power must facilitate institutions devoted to the care and education of children. According to protocol I (1977) schools and other buildings used for civil purposes are guaranteed protection from military attacks. Protocol II also states that children shall receive an education in keeping with the wishes of their parents. Refugee children are also protected under the 1951 Refugees Convention, which guarantees the right to elementary education, and states they should be accorded the same opportunities as nationals from the host country. The regulations has stated in the various instrument are constantly being violated in conflict situations. Attacks on schools are one of the most easily quantifiable ways of gauging the effect of a conflict on education. In 2001 for instance, Israeli soldiers shot at nearly 100 schools in the Occupied Territories, using rubber bullets, live ammunition, and tear gas. Another 71 schools came under attack through tank shelling or rockets fired from helicopters (DCI 2002, as cited in Nicolai and Triplehorn 2003).

In East Timor, the violence of September 1999 destroyed between 80% and 90% of school buildings and related infrastructure (UNDP 2002, as cited in Nicolai and Triplehorn 2003). Education infrastructures were also targeted during the Libyan conflict and other uprising during the Arab Spring in 2011. The impact of conflict on education may also be felt more indirectly, as part of a wider pattern of disruption and dislocation and the effects of state collapse (Nicolai and Triplehorn 2003). In the same vein, in 2006 nearly 60 million children were out of school in the 33 conflict affected Countries (Donahue and Loaiza, as cited in Machel 2009), out of approximately 93 million children of the same age group out of school globally in 2005–2006 (UNICEF 2007, as cited in Machel 2009). The Machel report pointed out that these conflict-affected countries, the average primary school net enrolment/attendance ratio (essentially the percentage of children of the appropriate age group enrolled/attending classes) is 81 per cent. While 10 of these countries are on track to reach universal primary education by 2015, another 19 have shown no progress at all.

Contextual analysis

This paper seeks to contextualize education for young people in armed conflict by examining war time situation of youth and children in Cambodia, India, Columbia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Reaching the EFA goals and the Millennium Development target 2 is essential for countries in or recovering from armed conflict. The World Bank has identified 13 conflict-affected countries that are on track to meet the goal of universal primary education: Colombia, El Salvador, Kosovo and Sri Lanka (Buckland 2005, as cited in Bell and Huebler 2011). Some international organizations see conflict as both a major challenge and a major opportunity, as the post-conflict environment may be fertile ground for substantial development (Buckland 2005; Nicolai 2008 as cited in Bell and Huebler 2011).


Before 1970, Cambodia was renowned in colonial Indochina for its educational system, with well-trained teachers, modern infrastructure and regional universities (Nicolai 2008, as cited in Bell and Huebler 2011).The civil war and the subsequent Khmer Rouge regime destroyed this remarkable achievement and the regime’s Maoist philosophy specifically targeted the educated elite, both in terms of human infrastructure, such as teachers and scholars, and physical infrastructure, such as schools (Nicolai 2008; Buckland 2005; de Walque 2006, cited in Bell and Huebler 2011). The aftermath of the conflict was felt at all regions in Cambodia with teachers, educational facilities and young people mostly affected. The below table depicts the average change per year in education attainment indicator by conflict period and before the conflict.



Bell and Huebler 2011 noted that the highly contested states of Jammu and Kashmir have been the site of four wars between India and Pakistan since partition in 1947. While tensions have lingered over the last 60 years, wars between the two countries over this region have been frequent but relatively short, taking place in 1948, 1965, 1971, and 1999. Thousands of people have been displaced and live in Jammu and Kashmir or in camps in bordering states (Sudan 2010 cited in Bell and Huebler 2011). The constant state of insecurity and the displacement of communities have taken a toll on the population. Approximately 20,000 women have died due to the conflict in the two states over the past 20 years, and as many as 40,000 children have been orphaned (Sudan 2010, cited in Bell and Huebler 2011). Education in JK was modeled after the British education system due to the effects of colonization (Raza 1984, cited in Arshad 2008). A movement towards the Western definition of ‘education’ marginalized the traditional religious study schools, and had a modernizing effect on the population educated by the Western standards, the Hindu Brahmins (Mir 2003, cited in Arshad 2008).

The school system in Jammu, Kaghmir is managed by the Board of School Education. In 2008, BOSE runs more than 10,609 schools across the State and employs 22,300 teachers (Government of Jammu & Kashmir, 2007). There are approximately 14,938 public and private schools in JK, including primary schools, elementary schools, secondary schools and senior secondary schools (J&K Board of School Education, 2008). Schools facilities along with students have been the targeted of militant battle for the region. Renegade Kashmiri militants have set fire to many schools on the belief that the schools were not supporting their cause (Schofield182, cited in Bell and Huebler 2011). Human Rights Watch (2006, cited in Bell and Huebler 2011) states that 640 educational buildings have been destroyed since the conflict began. There have also been reports of child soldier recruitment in schools by some Kashmiri rebel groups (UNESCO 2010b, cited in Bell and Huebler 2011). UNESCO (2010b, Bell and Huebler 2011) has also stated that the Naxalite (Maoist) conflict in India has affected schooling in three other states: Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.


The conflict in Colombia is fueled by a long extended conflict caused by inequalities and the link between armed group and illegal activities such as drugs production and trafficking.

The UN Secretary General 2011 report, stated that official Government information as of September 2010 there were 61,047 new internally displaced persons, of which 30,488 were children (15,644 boys and 14,844 girls). Non-governmental sources estimate that the number of IDPs is much larger. The thousand of the displaced children unwillingly drop from school and the possibility of moving to another grade level seem almost impossible. After the Israel-Palestine and India-Pakistan (Kashmir) conflicts, Colombia has undergone the third longest continuous domestic conflict in the 20th century (Rodr'guez and Sánchez 2009, cited in Bell and Huebler). Colombia has over three million internally displaced people, of which over half are estimated to be of school-going age (Nicolai 2008 cited in Bell and Huebler). There remains a widespread attack on school facilities and teachers.

For example, between 1991 and 1996, “808 Colombian educators were killed, 2015 received death threats, 21 were tortured, 59 were ‘disappeared’, and 1008 were forced to leave their homes and jobs for fear of violence” (Nicolai 2008, cited in Bell and Huebler).

According to the organization War Child reports that 14,000 children were serving as child soldiers in 2007, many of whom were recruited from schools (Nicolai 2008, Bell and Huebler 2011). The war has also affected government spending on education, putting a strain on schools and teachers as average yearly government expenditure on education dropped by five percentage points, from 17% of total government spending to 12% during some of the most intense conflict periods (Nicolai 2008, cited in Bell and Huebler 2011).

Democratic Republic of Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of African mineral rich nations that have been engulfed by civil strife over the last decades. The United Nations has declared the latest conflict in the 1990´s to be “the most deadly humanitarian catastrophe in 60 years” (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2006, cited in Bell and Huebler 2011). Although the death toll in the DRC has been contested, experts agree that the total is much more than 4 million people (Bell 2006 cited in Bell and Huebler 2011).

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs stated in 2006, that 1.66 million people have been internally displaced, mostly in the eastern part of the country, notably the regions of Kivu and Katanga. Children and youths were mainly targeted during the war. Most of them including females were forcefully recruited to serve as child soldiers. UNICEF ranks the DRC as the country with the highest number of children used as soldiers, sexual slaves and laborers (Bell 2006, cited in Bell and Huebler 2011). According to UNESCO 2010 report many children have been abducted on their way to school by rebel groups to serve as child soldiers, and schools have been ransacked by police and rebels and occupied by the army and the rebel group CNDP.

Restoring the lives of young people affected by armed conflicts

There needs to be a total restoration and support for education during and after armed conflict. Youths and children associated with fighting forces need to go through a proper reintegration process which should be followed by a comprehensive education package. Psychosocial training to counsel war affected youths and instill a sense of patriotism and civil responsibility has taken place in many countries around the world. Because young people have fought for so long, life skill training and employment opportunities to better their lives and improve their standard of living is imperative. According to the USAID community Focused Reintegration 2005 report, most former child soldiers undergoing the reintegration belong to extremely poor families. Invariably, these children feel compelled to supplement the family income. For this reason many demobilization programs include vocational education programs to build skills in a specific trade. Vocational training exists to help children gain skills in a specific trade. Children gain skills in agriculture, animal husbandry, baking, carpentry, crafting, masonry, mechanics, tailoring and a variety of other trades. Young people that did not support warring factions need to also be placed into job activities to deterred them from be used to fueled violence in the future.

Gender perspective

Gender plays an important role in providing education for young people affected by armed conflict. All countries have agreed to implement the MDG-3, but yet female ex-combatants and students have been denied education and reintegration benefits provided to their male counterparts. There is a huge disparity in education for girls compared to boys in conflict situations. Education for all is a right and should be provided to every child irrespective of creed, color, and religion, and, we should add, gender. The Machel´s report also highlighted the disproportionate impact of conflict on girls and, in particular on their access to education.

In conflict situations, men and young boys may be at greater risk of recruitment into fighting forces and into potentially-lethal active combat, but women and girls may be forced to serve as sex slaves and cooks, or take on other non-combatant roles (Jackie 2006). They may be targeted for rape and sexual abuse by fighting forces, but may also be subjected to sexual violence by men of their own community and family (Jackie 2006). Conflict creates exaggerated cultures of male domination, aggressive, violence, and impunity (Jackie 2006). Girls and women inevitably suffer in the abnormal world of refugee camps, where sexual violence can become normalized. Girls who do go to school may find that they are subjected to harassment, exploitation and even rape by male students or teachers, with no one to turn to for protection, response, or reporting (Jackie 2006). Girls also drop out of school because of early marriage and pregnancy in many non-emergency contexts. Even when both girls and boys affected by crises are able to access education, gender inequalities with respect to the quality and appropriateness of education may remain (Jackie 2006).

Right to Education instruments

The right to education for all young people has been spelled out in many International instruments ratified by nearly all countries. Countries also have in their constitution the right to primary education for children, but it is has not been adhered to. The most notable instruments that point to Education for All are: The Education for All strategy, Convention on the Rights of the Child, Universal declaration of Human Rights, and the Millennium Development Goals.

Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the child (United Nations, 1989) states the following:

  1. Make primary education compulsory and available free to all;
  2. Encourage the development of different forms of secondary education, make them available and accessible to every child, and take appropriate measures such as the introduction of free education and offering assistance in case of need;
  3. Make higher education available to all on the basis of capacity by every appropriate means.

The right to education also measured in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and became applicable to the status of Refugees in 1951. Populations affected by war, displacement and calamities have the right to education, under the International covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ( 1967) and other human rights instruments, notably the 1989 convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by all nations ( Bensalah, Sinclair & Nacer 2001).

The United Nations Millennium Goals makes it clear that the entire world is expected to achieve universal primary education by 2015. The goal is to ensure that children everywhere, boys and girls, alike will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.

The Dakar framework of Action drafted in Dakar 2000 recognized that one of the barriers to attaining Education for All (EFA) was the existence of countries and regions affected by current or recent, or natural disasters (UNESCO 2000). The Dakar pledge to mobilize strong national and international political commitment for education for all, develop national action plans and enhance significantly investment in basic education. The forum also pledged to meet the needs of education systems affected by conflict, natural calamities and instability and conduct educational programs in ways that promote mutual understanding, peace and tolerance, and that help to prevent violence and conflict (Dakar Framework for Action, para 8, April 2000).


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A.B. Pobuwolo Towaye is an MA candidate in the Sustainable Urban Governace and Peace programme of the United Nations Mandated University for Peace.