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Finding inspiration in Malala: how we’re helping children go to school in northern Syria

Last week Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her refusal to back down from what she believes is right – and for shining a light on the daily struggle of millions of children around the world whose right to an education is under attack.

What happened to Malala – shot by a Taliban gunman on her school bus for speaking up for her right to an education – was a turning point. Her life changed forever, of course.

But it was also a turning point for people around the world who support children’s right to education. Malala’s bravery in fighting for this right, and the callousness of the act that followed, brought into sharp focus the extreme threat many children face on a daily basis simply by trying to access an education. As Malala pointed out in her speech, she is not a lone voice: she is the voice of many children who also want education and peace.

Education under attack in northern Syria
Despite the international attention Malala’s experience has brought to the issue, education, and children who try to access it in areas affected by crisis, is under attack. Attacks on education are on the increase in Syria, for example, where it’s estimated that at least one in five schools are damaged, destroyed or occupied by armed groups or displaced people.

In fact, it’s likely that the actual figures are much higher. In the areas of northern Syria where we work we’ve seen a 500% increase in the attacks on or near schools this year alone. One of the schools we support is now completely destroyed as a result of three airstrikes.

Classroom of a primary school in northern Syria that had been rehabilitated by Save the Children and was destroyed in a recent attack. (photo: Save the Children)

While the scale of attacks on education is shocking and presents a very real danger to children’s education in Syria, it’s important to recognise that this doesn’t mean education is over. Education can and should still continue in the face of active conflict. Save the Children believes it has a model that enables us to provide safe, protective, and good-quality learning opportunities for children affected by conflict.

Bringing hope
In a context like Syria, particularly in areas controlled by armed groups where there’s a lack of education governance, communities often bear the responsibility of ensuring their children continue education. Through our programming in northern Syria we’ve shown that an effective emergency education response can happen when delivered hand in hand with communities.

We work with Syrian communities to plan their education response and provide them with materials, support and teacher training. As ensuring the safety and wellbeing of children is at the core of our education response, we also support and equip communities to prepare for, manage and respond to the impact of conflict on their children’s learning.

We help communities:
• plan class schedules around when it is safest for children to be in school
• identify alternative learning spaces
• convert school basements into bomb shelters so children know there is a safe space to go in the event of an attack.

When communities decide to suspend formal education, there’s a range of responses available to fit different situations. In cases of school closures, communities monitor the security situation to decide when to re-open schools and teachers support parents with home-based learning activities in the interim.

Through planning and preparing for continuing education, communities regain a degree of control over their situation. Children gain a greater sense of wellbeing – and therefore improve their learning – when they know there are plans in place to keep them both safe and learning.

So much more to do
While we’ve made great progress with our education programming inside northern Syria, we’re only reaching 2% of the out-of-school children. We have capacity to support more communities to restart education in their areas, but due to the chronic underfunding of the Syrian education response, we can’t scale up our efforts.

We therefore call on key donors, including the UK government, to recognise that education is not over inside Syria and to invest in getting more Syrian children’s futures back on track.

Children in class at one of the schools supported by Save the Children in northern Syria
Children in class at one of the schools supported by Save the Children in northern Syria (photo: Save the Children)

Malala and her father, also an education advocate, embody the fearless determination we see time and time again in the children and families we work with both inside Syria and in other crisis contexts. For many of children and families, education is life and it must go on even in the most adverse conditions. Last week’s historic moment reminds us of how inspired we are by Malala, and by all of the children and their families who remain committed to learning despite their circumstances.

This blog post was written with Jen Steele, Education Adviser – Syria Response


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