Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera
Today is International Day to Protect Education from Attack
The United Nations General Assembly by Resolution 74/275 established the International Day to Protect Education from Attack, which falls annually on 9 September. A striking feature of the resolution is that it focuses principally on protecting education from armed conflict. It also predominantly revolves around the education of children. However, as it reaffirms the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, particularly Goal 4 to ensure equitable opportunities for all-inclusive education, it implies protecting the education of women, disabled persons and the elderly. Besides armed conflicts, numerous other barriers that cause hindrances to the protection of education such as issues pertaining to non-armed conflicts, the post-war scenario, the COVID-19 pandemic, inherent lacunae in the domestic policy framework and detrimental trade union actions are discussed below.
Education as a fundamental right
The right to education is recognised as a fundamental human right by international treaty law. Article 13 of the International Convention on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) stipulates that everyone has the right to education. Hence, every state is obliged to provide free access to compulsory primary education, make secondary education available to all and make higher education accessible to all depending on capacity. Human rights are applicable at all times subject to lawful derogations such as emergency/crisis situations. However, international humanitarian law (IHL) applies only in times of armed conflict. Article 4(3)(a) of the Additional Protocol II of the Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949 stipulates that all children shall receive education as a fundamental guarantee in keeping with the wishes of their parents. The Geneva Conventions prohibit attacking schools/universities during armed conflicts unless they are clear legitimate military objectives (Art. 52). Schools and universities are further protected from being used as shields for military objectives and operations in the presence of children, teachers and school staff (Art.28, Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949). Furthermore, recruiting children into armed forces or groups is frowned upon and amounts to a war crime and it is in direct contravention with the right to education as stipulated above and the state’s obligation to ensure the development and, to the maximum possible extent, the survival of the child (Art. 6, Convention on the Rights of the Child).
Armed conflict and education
In conducting international and non-international armed conflicts, armed forces and groups are expected to adhere to the basic rules of IHL and human rights as mentioned above. However, parties to the conflict often flout these basic rules. According to UNICEF, more than 22,000 students, teachers and academics have been either killed or injured in attacks on education in the past five years. The UN Security Council has identified and condemned six grave violations against children in times of war including attacks on schools and hospitals. Schools are often converted into military bases by armed forces and groups storing ammunition, building sleeping cots for combatants, parking armoured vehicles in gymnasiums and surrounding the premises by barbed wire prohibiting unauthorised access.
As of 19 March 2021, approximately 60 schools and universities across 13 states and regions of Myanmar had been occupied by the military. Since the conflict began in 2014, around 3,500 education facilities in Ukraine have been affected. Children either have no access to schools owing to shooting, land mines and shelling or limited access when the hostilities die down in states such as Stanytsia Luhanska. UNICEF condemned the attack on Sayed Ul-Shuhada High School, Kabul in Afghanistan by the Taliban which took place on 08 May 2021. Now with the current occupation of Afghanistan by the Taliban, the threat to education is at an all-time high. Women and children have become ever more vulnerable. The Taliban leaders vow to respect women’s rights allowing them to enter university education. However, mixed-gender classes are set to be prohibited. Since there are not many male teachers in the country it seems practically impossible to segregate classes by gender. Given the group’s history of suppression of women, the international community is skeptical about the promises of the Taliban leaders.
Furthermore, the conflict in Yemen is considered the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Over 2 million children in Yemen have no access to schools. Reportedly 2,507 schools have either been damaged, used as shelter by internally displaced persons or occupied by armed groups. An estimated 171,600 teachers have not been paid regular salaries for almost 4 years which has compelled them to quit teaching. More than 3,600 children have been recruited to armed groups between March 2015 and February 2021 depriving them of education.
Education for refugees
Refugees flee to safe countries either because of armed conflicts in their home states or non-armed conflicts or even ethnic marginalisation. Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar have been victims of extreme governmental intervention and ethnic cleansing. Thus far more than 900,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. As of 2019, approximately 683,000 Rohingya children live in fear of being subject to violence, abuse and trafficking. For these children, the protracted sense of limbo has awoken an intense desire for learning opportunities that prepare them for the future. Reportedly 192,000 children have enrolled in around 2,167 learning centres. According to the latest assessments, an additional 640 facilities are required to accommodate children who have no access to any facility. This exclusion results in a lack of opportunity. Therefore it is pertinent that vocational training is provided which would translate into opportunities in entrepreneurship. This further requires the cooperation of the Bangladeshi government to accept the refugee children as Bangladeshi citizens to help them integrate into society. This would require an enormous social movement to acquire the general consensus of the people. These children do not have the necessary resources including trained teachers. This calls for the international community to provide aid to help them realise the right to education.
Education for the differently-abled and the elderly
As mentioned above the right to education is a fundamental right that is promised to be provided across the board for all classes and creeds. As such Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities provides that countries have to take progressive steps to foster an environment of inclusivity and equality for all tiers of education. This can be viewed to be an enhancement of the protection of education as discrimination is levelled at disabled or differently-abled people on various counts. Despite there being legislation formulated on equality and accessibility, the problem is still prevalent even in the most developed countries. For example, the British Parliament was made aware of the lack of accessible material for disabled students from prominent universities across the country. This was not due to the lack of resources but simply due to the heathen attitude taken towards differently-abled people in general. This sort of attack needs to be mitigated or prevented and not by means of red herring systems such as disabled parking and disabled scholarships but also pragmatic moves to make them feel welcome to learn and grow in a caring environment like everyone else.
A similar approach is necessary to educate the elderly and senior citizens of society. Sri Lanka being a country that places high importance on extended family and the reliance of grandparents to look after grandchildren, have done very little to provide them with a further source of education. It then begs the question if they are willing to learn at their age. Education does not entail teaching mathematics and classics but also voter education as well as legal aid. The Protection of Elders Act. No 9 of 2000 was enacted to enhance the education and rights of elders. Through the intervention of the National Council of Elders (established through the Act) the Elders’ Desk was set up at the Legal Aid Commission in order to provide advice on maintenance, banking information, elders rights and other counselling services. While the efficacy of the Elders’ Desk remains insubstantial, it is safe to state that it is established in order to provide some sort of education to elders in the motive of protecting their right to information which can be indirectly classified as a protection of their right to education.
Education in Sri Lanka
There is no ongoing armed conflict in Sri Lanka after the end of the civil war which was fought for nearly three decades. However, Sri Lanka is a fine example to evaluate other attacks on education. Sri Lanka boasts of a free-education arrangement which facilitates all citizens to have access to education supposedly without any expenses. This together with the mandatory requirement for every child to be in school until the age of 14 is perhaps the reason behind Sri Lanka’s high literacy rate. A report recently published by the National Education Commission of Sri Lanka even recognises education as a right rather than a privilege available to all citizens. However, this is far from the truth as all levels of education in Sri Lanka are undergoing significant strife in almost all regions. While it is true that free-education has enabled students from disadvantaged backgrounds to mandatorily commit themselves to education until the age of fourteen, the system is not without flaws.
a. Statutory framework in Sri Lanka
Education is not a guaranteed fundamental right in Sri Lanka. However, the Constitution in Article 27(2)(h) requires the State to eradicate illiteracy and guarantee universal and equal access to education to all citizens. This is a mere Directive Principle of State Policy and is not justiciable. Moreover, the Supreme Court has occasionally dealt with procedural issues in education rather than substantive qualitative aspects. In the case of Chandani de Soyza v Minister of Education SC. FR. No. 77/2016, addressing the matter of discrimination against a student associated with an HIV positive parent, it was held that the State has an obligation to render equal access to education at all levels. The court in the case of Kavirathne v Pushpakumara SC. FR. No. 29/2012 opted for an expansive interpretation of the equality clause in Article 12(1) to recognise the fundamental right to tertiary education. Despite these efforts, the State has failed to give students access to equal education.
b. Free education versus paid education
The concept of privatisation of education contravenes the State’s responsibility to support higher education. This issue has been in the public domain for many decades. Especially, in relation to the privatisation of medical faculties, there has been an outcry and a great degree of dissent on the matter. The State can never absolve itself from the fundamental commitments under human rights law, whether in providing higher education or facilitating higher education. The resolution for this is not the complete eradication of private universities as it would be a degenerating measure. These private institutions complement the State education system by enriching the fundamental features of higher education such as availability and accessibility. What is required is a transparent and independent body to observe and regulate the education provided by all academic institutions. That authority is best vested with the University Grants Commission (UGC). At present, State Universities are subjected to a twofold quality assurance mechanism by the UGC. The Standing Committees of the UGC focus on the substantive academic content of State universities, whereas the Quality Assurance Accreditation Council of the UGC appraises if the overall educational experience of students is a positive one. This mechanism should not be restricted to State institutions, rather should expand as policy to all educational institutions.
c. Disparities between Government schools
A study done by the Centre for Poverty Analysis in 2018 notes that despite the internationally acclaimed literacy rate in Sri Lanka, the country shows inequality in access to quality education. This gap is evident between Schools within the Colombo municipality and rural areas. Post war affected regions such as Batticaloa and Mullativu are two of the most impoverished districts in which inequality is prevalent. A scholarship examination had been introduced since 1948 for students who show promise to pursue their secondary education in Colombo and other leading schools islandwide. However, it has not remedied the broader issue of inequality in the learning environment as a whole. The government in 2016 launched the “nearest school is the best school project”, which was to oversee the development of 7,000 schools with focus on water and drainage facilities, electricity and sanitary facilities, new constructions, development of goods, equipment and human resources.
Moreover, The report further notes that there is a high drop-out rate between ages 15-17 due to employment opportunities in the informal sector. It also notes that “dropping out from school is primarily driven by poverty”. In a system where a student is enabled to pursue even tertiary education without any expenses, this trend reflects a larger issue. The socio-economic background of the individual has a significant role to play in the determination of the child’s desire to further his/her education.
d. COVID-19 and access to education
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Schools to be closed since March 2020 and there have been serious issues raised in relation to the success of online learning. Former Minister of Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure Harin Fernando blamed the then opposition for protesting against the proposal of the Yahapalana government’s programme to provide tabs to school students and the launch of the Google Loon project. He further, stated that had the current government supported the Google Loon project, Sri Lanka would have had island-wide 4G coverage. This boils down to two issues the education system has faced. First, the lack of island-wide internet coverage to ensure quality online learning and, second, the lack of resources to engage in online learning, i.e. sufficient electronic devices.
Students as well as teachers are ill-equipped to cater to the needs of online learning. Since the first lockdown in March 2020, teachers have been unable to evaluate students based on tests and examinations. Our education system is an exam-oriented one and the principal focus of primary and secondary education is to enable students to perform well at government level examinations. Students across the country are deprived of quality education. Students and teachers have become mere victims of circumstances as a result of lack of coherent policies and party politics.
e. Government school teachers: no wages, no lessons
Government teachers and principals have resorted to a trade action requesting the government to increase wages, resolve anomalies between existing salaries and the withdrawal of the Kotelawala National Defense University Bill. The unions threaten to continue the strike, which has consequently disrupted online education precluding students from learning.
The issue has been raised as a matter tainted by political agenda as the unions have rejected all proposals made by the government. This ultimately contravenes the best interest of the student. Under s. 5(1) of the Public Security Ordinance, the President may declare, among other things, services “essential to the life of the community” as essential services. In such a scenario, unions that fall under such essential services will be restricted in resorting to strike actions. However, in the case of Yasapala v Ranil Wickramasinghe SC. Application No. 103 of 1980, Sharvananda J. held that education will not come under essential services. Therefore, it will be impossible for the government to compel the teachers to proceed with online lessons unless a compromise is drawn between the parties.
Education is a right every child is entitled to and all States must ensure that the environment is set to allow children to engage in learning. While the day denouncing attacks on education primarily deals with armed or non-armed conflicts, education is a universal right and wherever it is infringed, it must be denounced. Conflict ridden regions such as Yemen and Afghanistan as well as post-conflict States such as Sri Lanka must attempt to not merely allow students to engage in academic related activities, but also to be benefited in an equal footing. This is essential as education is the key to eradicating future conflicts. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani school girl who was shot by the Taliban in 2012, said in her UN Speech, “The extremists are afraid of books and pens, the power of education frightens them.” If one aspires to change the destiny of the society, protecting the education of the youth today is the most apt solution for all nations.
To see more on Education and Literacy in Sri Lanka, see Groundviews’ Literacy and the Dimensions of the Digital Divide