© UNESCO /M. Hofer (2011), A female student of Hai Tokyo School on the outskirts of Juba, South Sudan participates in a English reading exercise.

Targeting schools in the world’s newest state

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To mark the launch in Juba, South Sudan, of a new GMR policy paper on South Sudan’s education challenges, we publish a special opinion piece by  UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova. Download the policy paper at www.efareport.unesco.org.

Mrs. Irina Bokova Director-General of UNESCO. © UNESCO/Michel Ravassard

On 9 July, South Sudan became the world’s newest state.

This is a historic moment that requires the support of the entire international community. This is why the UK Department for International Development and UNESCO, along with other UN Agencies and NGOs, have joined forces to target schools as foundations for a healthy country.

No country better illustrates the need to back post-conflict reconstruction than South Sudan. Twenty one years of civil war left 2 million dead and displaced 4 million others. Maternal mortality is the highest in the world.

Schools and schoolchildren were systematically targeted during the conflict. South Sudan has today the world’s lowest primary school enrollment rates. Teenage girls are more likely to die in childbirth than complete their schooling. Only 8 percent of women are literate.

It is vital that the international community puts in place the long-term, predictable financing that is vital to the development of a national education system.

South Sudan is not the only case.

School children are on the frontline of armed conflict across the world. They are the victims of attacks on schools, forced recruitment into armed militia, and an epidemic of rape and sexual violence.

UNESCO’s 2011 Education for All Global Monitoring Report shines the spotlight on this hidden crisis. The facts are alarming. Between 1998 and 2008, an estimated 2 million children were killed in conflicts, with 6 million left disabled. Around 300,000 children are being exploited as soldiers. Sexual violence is becoming systemic. One-third of the rapes reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo involve children. Across the world, classrooms and the kids sitting in them are increasingly seen as legitimate targets.

This is an immediate human rights crisis. It is also a long term development disaster.

In the 35 conflict-affected developing countries we surveyed, there are 28 million children out of school. These countries feature the world’s deepest gender inequalities and lowest literacy levels, along with some of the highest child death rates.

All of this entrenches the logic of war. Children lacking an education face a future of blighted by poverty – always a persuasive recruitment sergeant for armed groups.

What is more, education is often the first budget line cut by governments facing conflict. Twenty one developing countries currently spend more on arms than on primary schools.

The international community is not doing enough to tackle this problem. Education accounted for an estimated US$149 million in 2009, around 2 percent, of total humanitarian aid. No sector has a smaller share of humanitarian appeals actually funded, with just 38 percent of aid requests met. Education falls in the cracks between humanitarian aid and development assistance.

And yet, education is the best, long-term way to break cycles of violence. It is a human right and vital for overcoming poverty and reaching sustainable growth. Quality education for all lies at the heart of the Millennium Development Goals we are determined to reach by 2015.

To address this crisis and set South Sudan on the path to peace, we must act at three levels.

Our priority must be to stop appalling violations of human rights. Attacks on children, systematic rape, or the destruction of school facilities are unacceptable and should not go unpunished. Governments must bring those responsible to account. The United Nations must do it part – to monitor, report and investigate egregious violations of human rights.

Second, we need to invest more in education in both humanitarian and development assistance. Education cannot remain the poor cousin of international efforts. It is the best way to protect the green shoots of peace. It is often the first peace dividend for communities struggling to get back on their feet.

Lastly, education must rise on the agenda of peace-building. We know the wrong type of education can fuel conflict. We must support inclusive education systems that reach out to all groups and that teach human rights and civic values. Getting this wrong condemns societies to repeat the nightmares of history.

Education lies on the frontline of conflict; it should be at the forefront of building peace. We are not there yet. In South Sudan, we have a chance to change the trend. This is why UNESCO is working so closely with the UK Department for International Development, as well as with Save the Children, UN agencies, NGOs and other partners. We must act now to protect children and schools, to reconstruct education, and to tap education’s power to foster peace. South Sudan faces a real challenge – but it is a challenge that, with support from the international community, can be met.



  1. Southern Sudan has been the top priority of all organization. But nothing has been done to the lost boys where all media in june 2005 in the USA has been focusing on them. The question is where are they most of them are being forgotten. Where is the education for all. In USA they talk about education for all while Texas has the highest illiteracy in the nation if not the entire world. I think education for all need to be extended to USA too. There is a saying charity begins at home.

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