An Attack on Education is an Attack on Life Itself
As efforts to reopen schools in Tigray are underway, one thinks about the students whose lives have been drastically changed, interrupted, or even lost due to the ongoing Tigray Genocide.
Out of an estimated 2.3 million school-aged children in Tigray, 1.7 million have been out of school for the last three academic years. Nearly 90% of schools around the region have been damaged due to the genocide facilitated by Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces. The education system in Tigray has been systematically attacked since the genocide began in November 2020, and research shows that years of progress within the region’s education system have been reversed. The Ethiopian federal government and its allied military forces have bombed, looted, and occupied schools, sometimes using these sites to commit other crimes, including weaponized rape. Widespread and systematic Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) has been a main tool of the genocide. One Mekelle resident told Human Rights Watch, “I saw different women taken inside [a school]. Sometimes they would stay two, three, or five days, and we would see them go in and out of the school. They appeared beaten and were crying as they would leave… No one could ask the women what happened to them, and the atmosphere made it difficult to do so.” A report by the Tigray Education Bureau revealed that teachers and students have been targeted and killed since the conflict began, and primary school enrollment rates declined from 90% in 2020 to just 21% in 2021. Additionally, many teachers joined the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), deciding that their fate might be better on the battlefield.
In any conflict, students who are out of school are more susceptible to abduction, murder, CRSV, exploitation, and recruitment by armed forces. Girls with families facing economic hardships due to the conflict may sometimes be forced into child marriage. School-aged children might take on dangerous, life-risking work to support their families instead of attending classes. Additionally, students may be less likely to return to school after what they have endured and the associated trauma, especially after long periods of time. Students in Tigray have been denied the international human right to education — so it is not unsurprising that Ethiopia has not endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, a commitment to supporting and protecting education systems and the right to education during conflict.
Regarding the attacks on Tigray’s education system, Human Rights Watch Horn of Africa director Laetitia Bader said, “Occupying and damaging schools ends up affecting the lives of Tigray’s future generations, adding to the losses that communities in Tigray have faced […].” It is clear that an attack on education is an attack on the future and on life itself. The systematic destruction of the education system in Tigray has deliberate, long-lasting impacts. A pause in education can fuel the cycle of poverty, widening gaps in the future health and socioeconomic differences of the population.
Even after just one month of missing school, let alone several years, students may find it difficult to return to the classroom. “When you see family members, parents, siblings, rape, killing, injury, a child during the formative years see all this violence or are even the subject of this violence, will logically become traumatized and that’s why mental health and psychosocial services are another very existential, lifesaving component of education,” said Yasmine Sherif, Director of the UN-funded nonprofit Education Cannot Wait. In cases like the Syrian conflict, many students have expressed that they will not be returning to school. One 16-year-old Syrian boy told Concern Worldwide, an international humanitarian agency, “I won’t go back to school. I have lost my will now after missing it for two years.” He expressed that he would be behind on coursework and that for him and his generation, “the future is not clear.” For Tigrayans who have been subjected to genocide, a similar sentiment is likely shared.
When reinstating the education system in Tigray, there must be a guarantee of stability, the provision of basic services, and the reconstruction of infrastructure within the region. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack has created guidelines that outline important tactics such as assisting victims of attacks and deterring future attacks, particularly by investigating past attacks and holding perpetrators accountable. It must be ensured that Tigrayans are provided with the proper resources and support to facilitate the reopening of schools with mental health and psychosocial curriculum across the region, implementing all efforts to mitigate the detrimental impacts on future generations.
Semhal – Omna Tigray Contributor, March 2023