This story originally appeared in our summer magazine, an annual publication that features engaging pieces on issues affecting young people.
We’re in the midst of an education emergency. Students around the world are being kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and slaughtered in cold blood while attempting to gain an education.
In Chibok, Nigeria, the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram abducted and enslaved 276 girls from their school, and over a year later, they remain missing. In Swat, Pakistan, Taliban terrorists attempted to assassinate 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, an outspoken education advocate. And in the United States, countless school shootings have occurred over the past few years, at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook Elementary School. Young people around the world risk their lives every single day to get an education, and it’s unacceptable.
It can be easy to distance yourself from the atrocities committed against students outside of the United States, but the threats we face here are directly related to those occurring around the world. As the global population swells and we become increasingly internationally interdependent, education is more important than ever—studies show that investment in education is directly linked to poverty reduction. The more prosperous the global population, the less we have to worry about the devastation of preventable issues like infectious disease, environmental degradation, and overcrowding.
The Chibok mass-kidnapping case came to attention in the global news soon after it was perpetrated, around April 14, 2014. A worldwide movement was launched immediately for their rescue, propelled by the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, and was promoted by First Lady Michelle Obama, supermodel Cara Delevingne, and singer Steven Tyler. The United States, the United Kingdom, France, and China all offered their assistance to Nigeria, yet the girls still remain missing. The group claiming responsibility is Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist organization whose name means “Western education is forbidden.” The group specifically targets girls and young women to be used as sex slaves, and is responsible for up to 10,000 children being unable to attend school.
In Pakistan, the attempted assassination of activist Malala Yousafzai resulted in an internationally backed United Nations (UN) petition in support of her goals. They demanded Pakistan arrange education for every child, stop gender discrimination, and ask international organizations to get the world’s 61 million out- of-school children into school by the end of 2015. This global outcry for accountability demonstrates the soft power of education—that an investment in education for children like Malala can reap exponential rewards for a community, country, and the world as a whole.
Meanwhile, kids around the United States pass through metal detectors every day as they enter schools because of our country’s horrific legacy of school shootings. Children have become accustomed to random locker searches and school- wide drills to teach students what to do in the case of an active shooter on campus. They learn about bullying in the context of its repercussions in a country in which many have easy access to lethal weapons. Unlike the violence against students abroad, those lethal threats usually come from within American schools. ThinkProgress reported that in 2014 that there was an average of one school shooting every other day.
Because school shootings in the United States aren’t perpetrated by ideologically similar groups, as is the case in Nigeria and Pakistan, it’s difficult to say conclusively why exactly these attacks occur with such frequency. The Columbine shooters blame bullying, the University of California Santa Barbara killer was motivated by misogyny, and the Virginia Tech massacre is attributed to mental instability. Both the U.S. and countries like Nigeria and Pakistan that struggle with violence against students, therefore, are confronted with a faceless enemy. One of the ways to fight it is to increase accountability, internally within the country and externally with international organizations.
CREDIT: AP/Matt Dunham.
In pursuit of this basic human right, many organizations are stepping up to protect children. One way that schooling can be made safer is if governments decide to define attacks on schools and schoolchildren as crimes against humanity. Schools are already under the same classification as hospitals under international law—it’s time to get them protected, too. One of the top organizations working to decrease violence against students is the Safe Schools Initiative, which was founded after the attack and kidnapping in Nigeria. As of July 2015, it’s raised over $30 million from businesses, the Nigerian government, and international donors.
Governments are interested in investing in their future via education. All 189 UN member states agreed to the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, which lists achieving universal primary education as a goal. As the UN Declaration of Human Rights attests in Article 26: “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
In an increasingly interconnected world, universal education is becoming more and more pertinent. We’re growing at a rate of one billion people per year; we need to invest in education for the safety and health of our own future. Whether the issue is climate change, prevention of diseases like HIV/AIDS, or best reproductive practices, it’s clear that schoolchildren from Pakistan to Nigeria to the United States face obstacles to gaining an education that affect all of us, regardless of where we live or where we send our kids to school.