Going to school is becoming an increasingly dangerous proposition for girls around the world. Schools in at least 70 countries experienced some form of attack between 2009 and 2014, said the United Nations in a new report. Girls were overwhelmingly the target of such attacks. High-profile cases, like the assassination attempt of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai and the kidnapping of close to 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria by Boko Haram, illustrate only part of a worrying trend.
“Attacks against girls accessing education persist and, alarmingly, appear in some countries to be occurring with increasingly regularity,” the report said. “In most instances, such attacks form part of broader patterns of violence, inequality and discrimination.”
The report, delivered to U.N. Women by the Women’s Human Rights and Gender section of the Human Rights Council, is concerned by the factors that prevent girls from going to school. It says more than 3,600 attacks against schools, students and teachers were documented in 2012 alone.
The violence is the manifestation of problems rooted in insecurity and culture that contribute to attitudes that are not accepting of girls in school. The cases in Pakistan and Nigeria are ones in areas beset by conflict, but problems exist in countries not experiencing conflict. Cases from Central America and India illustrate the broad challenge faced by efforts to get more girls into school.
“Education continues to be denied to girls as a result of cultural and social norms and practices that perpetuate harmful stereotypes about appropriate roles for women and reinforce the idea that education is ‘wasted’ on girls,” says the report. “The educational rights of girls and women are often targeted due to the fact that they represent a challenge to existing gender and age-based systems of oppression.”
The right to education is a central issue in numerous human rights treaties and even appears in the Millennium Development Goals. That is in addition to the more than 140 countries that include the protection of the right to education in their constitutions. The United Nations is concerned that preventing girls from attending school will have long-lasting negative effects on the girls themselves and societies as a whole.
“Attacks on girls’ education have a ripple effect – not only do they impact on the lives of the girls and communities who are directly concerned, they also send a signal to other parents and guardians that schools are not safe places for girls,” says the report. “The removal of girls from education due to fears for their security and concerns about their subsequent marriageability may result in additional human rights violations.”
“Attack” is used in the broadest sense possible by the report. It ranges from abductions to acid assaults to sexual violence. The lack of security is believed to keep girls out of schools, thus putting them at greater risk of falling into forces marriages or labor, argues the United Nations. Insecurity is extended beyond the students and to the teachers, as well. Reports of rapes for both girls and teachers traveling to school were reported in countries such as El Salvador, Indonesia, Mali, the Philippines and more.
“The common cause of all these attacks, which are very different in nature, is deeply entrenched discrimination against women and girls,” said Veronica Birga, chief of the women’s human rights and gender section at the U.N. human rights office, at a event launching the report.
The findings will be used as a part of a larger report on women due to be published in October. According to the New York Times, Sri Lankan lawyer and rights advocate Radhika Coomaraswamy is leading the study. The pieces of research, including this report, will bring together a better picture of global progress towards gender equality.
In the meantime, the report issues cautious recommendations for countries to do more to ensure the safety of girls. It is careful to recognize that the root problems are found in unbalanced power structures that benefit men and deeper social norms.
“The transformation of unequal power relationships based on gender and age is a lengthy and difficult process, however, it is necessary in order to sustainably address the underlying causes and consequences of violations of the human rights of girls and women,” it concludes.