Sakinatu, Nafisa and Morinatu are three students at the Lycée Nelson Mandela, an all-female high school in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou. These bright young women have probably seen more hardship in their short lives than most of us can imagine. They come from poor families who can barely afford to send them to school — a daily journey which is long and unsafe. They have also seen how poverty has driven some of their former classmates to early marriage and even prostitution.
These three girls are not alone. Every single day, all over the world, girls face physical, psychological and sexual violence and harassment on their way to school – and, too often, in school – by men, peers and even teachers. While girls are disproportionally affected, boys also experience sexual violence, corporal punishment in the classroom, and bullying and harassment by fellow students.
And thousands of children are left traumatized when their schools are attacked by militant groups. Between 2013 and 2017, more than 12,000 students and teachers were harmed in more than 12,700 attacks on education in more than 70 countries.
Each case represents a shocking failure of basic morality, when innocent people are targeted by parties to conflict.
It is a sad truth that schools are not the safe space they should be and that we all want them to be.
Children themselves are sounding the alarm. In a recent UNICEF poll of young people, which received more than 1 million responses from over 160 countries, two out of three respondents said they had felt afraid of violence in and around their school.
This is unacceptable.
Ending violence improves learning — and strengthens economies
UNICEF and the Global Partnership for Education, the organizations we represent, are working tirelessly to improve the quality of education for all children and ensure they can learn in safety and without violence. We know that safe and equitable education, particularly for girls, is instrumental in reducing poverty, inequality and violence against children.
For example, if all girls received a quality education, child marriage would virtually be eradicated, and lifetime earnings for women could increase by US$15 to US$30 billion globally.
On the other hand, we know that violence hampers learning, undermines educational investments, and is detrimental to children and adults alike.
This week marks an important moment to shine a spotlight on this critical issue.
The high-level political forum on sustainable development taking place at the United Nations in New York brings together ministers and political leaders from around the world to review progress against the Sustainable Development Goals. This includes Goal 4 on inclusive and equitable quality education, and Goal 16, which captures the world’s commitment to end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children.
As we already know from the just published UNESCO report Meeting Our Commitments, the world is off-track in achieving the global education goal. At our current pace, one in six children will still be excluded from education in 2030.
From health to protection, to gender and economic growth, education is at the core of all 17 SDGs. Failing to achieve the education goal will hamper our ability to achieve all of them.
We must take urgent action — now. We’re calling for all governments to listen to what young people are telling us, and address the scourge of violence in schools.
On July 15, at the high-level political forum, we will join governments and global organizations to pledge our support to #SafeToLearn — a five-year initiative dedicated to ending violence in schools by 2024. This campaign is inspired by the UNICEF global poll, and the #ENDviolence Youth Manifesto prepared by 100 young people from around the world in South Africa last December.
A five-point Call to Action has been developed, setting out what needs to happen to end violence in schools. It recognizes that we need to work across many sectors, including health and justice, and with all levels of the wider school community.
Countries around the world are formally endorsing it.
We’ll be there to express our organizations’ commitments and to call on governments and communities around the world to support #SafeToLearn and ensure that children’s schooling is safe and free from violence.
Because children need to know that schools are sanctuaries of hope and opportunity, where children are #SafetoLearn, advance and thrive.
Let’s give them that opportunity.