10/10/2014 11:45 am ET Updated Dec 10, 2014

For Children of War, We Must Provide Education

In 2002 I moved to Damascus, Syria. Damascus was a beautiful city full of generous people who seemed charmed by my attempts at Arabic and eager to show me their city and country. Then came the Iraq war. I had to leave in March 2003 and I never made it back.

It's an understatement to say that what has happened in Syria, particularly since 2011, is devastating. I often think about the large groups of children laughing and singing and crowding the sidewalks before and after school. Before the violence that erupted in 2011 Syria had achieved nearly 100% enrollment of children in primary school - a goal that many countries are still struggling with despite the commitment by world leaders in 2000 that all countries could and should achieve this by 2015.

Now Syrian families, communities and a stable education system are in tatters. And child protection and opportunity for an entire generation of children is at risk.

What's bad for communities and bad for children is always worst for the girl child. How girls are treated in crisis is not unrelated to their status in peacetime. Girls are less valued (nearly everywhere) and chronic poverty and economic shocks make this even worse - drastically changing the calculations that families make. Previously unthinkable choices - like marrying off a 14-year-old daughter to a 45-year-old man suddenly make sense to families struggling to survive.

The same year the violence in Syria started the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution to declare 11 October as the International Day of the Girl Child - to recognize girls' rights and the unique challenges girls face around the world. The theme of this first Day of the Girl was 'ending child marriage.'

Though there has been some progress on eliminating child marriage globally - in particular by enhancing the accessibility and quality of formal schooling for girls and offering economic support and incentives for poor families, but it is not nearly fast enough. Nearly 40,000 girls are still married off every day. Not surprisingly, abuse and exploitation including child, early and forced marriage and child labor is on the rise among Syrian refugee populations - nearly doubling since the onset of war.

Meanwhile, strategies to keep girls safe in times of violence particularly the life-saving strategy of education are massively underfunded. Out-of-school children particularly in fragile settings are at greater risk of child marriage, violence, rape, and recruitment into fighting, prostitution, and other life-threatening, often criminal, activities. In contrast, education in these settings can provide children with life-saving information including how to protect themselves from sexual abuse, landmine awareness, hand-washing and other survival skills necessary in the specific context.

Education also saves lives in the long-term. A child born to literate mother is 50% more likely to survive past the age of five than a child born to an illiterate mother. And quality education is essential to rebuilding, not just in terms of relevant skills, but also by countering the underlying causes of violence, fostering inclusion, tolerance, human rights awareness and conflict resolution - and supporting the long-term processes of rebuilding and peace-building.

Despite the scale of the problem, despite the abuses on previously safe children with bright futures, efforts to raise a small amount of money from wealthier countries to support the considerable efforts of Lebanon to get all Syrian children back in school are faltering. This shames world leaders everywhere.

Saturday, October 11 is the Day of the Girl child - a day to reflect on the need to empower girls and end the cycle of violence. In Syria as elsewhere, the road to a lost generation of girls and boys and the exploitation of girl children in particular, will be paved with inaction.

Want to do something about it?

Rise up for out of school children! Sign the global #UpForSchool petition!

Support the first child marriage free zone in Pakistan.

Learn more about efforts to get all Syrian children back into school.

Kolleen Bouchane is the Director of Policy and Advocacy for A World At School and Director of Policy and Research for The Global Business Coalition for Education.

Ms. Bouchane served with the U.S. Army from 1993-1997 including with Operations Restore and Continue Hope in Somalia. Ms. Bouchane has a BA in International Studies from the Jackson School at the University of Washington and an MA in War Studies with a focus on Conflict, Security and Development from Kings College London.