07/12/2013 09:17 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2013

Schooling Under Siege


On October 9, 2012, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was riding a bus home from school, a daily ritual for children in places like my hometown of Fairfield, Conn. But for Malala, who lives in Pakistan, it was a bold move. She was shot by militants for being an education activist.

Sadly, confrontations and acts of violence on education are not uncommon around the globe. Millions of children confront alarming barriers to education every day. Save the Children's new report, Attacks on Education, highlights just how widespread and urgent the problem is -- and that in countries and regions blighted by conflict, almost 50 million children are out of school, while attacks on education are rising.

This is not only an indirect result of fighting and displacement. Attacks on education include direct attacks on students and teachers, as well as damage and looting of educational infrastructure. And being out of school not only means no learning and a dimmer future, it also increases the risk of being recruited into an armed group, sexual violence and unsafe labor.

The problem is illustrated repeatedly around the world. In Syria, more than 3,900 schools have been destroyed, damaged or are being occupied for purposes other than education, in addition to the human toll of children whose education -- and lives -- have been derailed by the violence. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, conflict disrupted the education of around 200,000 children in North Kivu alone. In Mali, 155 schools were looted, bombed, damaged, used by military groups or put at risk from unexploded ordnance.

Despite this, funding for education in humanitarian responses has gone from very little to even less, accounting for approximately 1 percent of all humanitarian aid. Education is often thought of with less urgency than other forms of humanitarian aid, but the reality is the opposite: it is critical in emergency settings. It provides a platform for other necessary interventions and support, and provides structure for children amid the chaos.The longer children are out of school, the less likely they are to ever return, underscoring the need to have schools running quickly and consistently enough to keep children from dropping out permanently.

The lesson here is this: Humanitarian donors must make education a higher priority. Education must be treated and funded as a lifesaving measure that protects children from even greater secondary harm in conflict-affected areas. Doing so will help us ensure that the harm of living in chaos and violence is not multiplied by lack of opportunity. Malala and children everywhere should have a fighting chance at learning and preparing for their future.