Protecting schools from attack in Nigeria and beyond – how to support community-based responses

The abduction of close to 300 girls by Boko Haram from a school in Borno state, Nigeria in April, and the closure of schools due to insecurity in the region, highlight the urgent need to find practical solutions to prevent and respond to attacks on education.

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Local knowledge and skills are crucial in the fight to protect students, educators, and schools from attack, said the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) in a newly-released study. The abduction of close to 300 girls by Boko Haram from a school in Borno state, Nigeria in April, and the closure of schools due to insecurity in the region, highlight the urgent need to find practical solutions to prevent and respond to attacks on education.

“As the world focuses on bringing the Nigerian girls home, it is important to recognize the role that communities themselves can play in safeguarding schools and to provide them with the support they need to maximize their resources and strengths,” said Diya Nijhowne, director of GCPEA.

GCPEA’s study, The Role of Communities in Protecting Education from Attack: Lessons Learned, examines how organizations supporting education programs have engaged communities to protect schools, students, and teachers in countries experiencing attacks on education. GCPEA has documented a pattern of attacks in 30 countries in the last five years.

The report is intended as a guide for people working in the field. In it, GCPEA urges international and local organizations to seek guidance and input from affected communities when working to prevent and respond to violent attacks on education.

“Humanitarians must be accountable to those whom we seek to assist. In most emergency settings we see parents, teachers, and communities self-organize to respond to education needs. This research provides us with a blueprint on how to better build upon the strengths that community approaches represent, while emphasizing the importance of establishing trust,” said Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, a member of GCPEA.

Drawing from reports by international agencies, interviews with practitioners, and field research in Côte d’Ivoire, the study synthesizes lessons learned in community-based efforts to protect education in 21 countries. It presents 12 steps that organizations can take to collaborate with communities in designing protection programs. These include: coordinating with local education actors; mapping community resources; assessing risks; developing a jointly agreed plan that reflects community concerns; and working with community members, including children, in monitoring and evaluating programs.

“Local community members are the ones who experience the physical and psychological impacts of attacks on education firsthand,” said Nijhowne. “And they have some of the most relevant knowledge and innovative ideas about how to prevent, mitigate, and respond to these attacks.”

Engaging communities in keeping schools safe may be beneficial for several reasons: community members can fill a service gap where governments lack the capacity to protect education fully, and community ownership over education can distance schools from the political fray and emphasize their neutrality.

In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, students and parents in urban areas used text messaging via mobile phones to check on the safety of family and friends and send advance warning of attacks. Ivorian communities also provided volunteer teachers, donated materials and labor to rehabilitate school buildings, and mobilized themselves to establish informal learning spaces that may have been less of a target because they were not associated with the government.

Community members can also be well placed to negotiate with belligerent groups to keep schools off limits, although such negotiation is not without risk. They understand the local context and conflict dynamics, and some may have personal knowledge of the individuals involved. In Nepal, for example, community members negotiated codes of conduct with insurgents in secret, “back door” discussions, minimizing the exposure of individual negotiators.

“Almost two months have passed since the mass kidnapping in Chibok, Nigeria, and the girls are still missing. As the government, with support from the international community, develops plans for making education safe from future attacks, community-based interventions must be part of the solution,” said Nijhowne.

The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) is a unique coalition of international organizations including CARA (Council for Assisting Refugee Academics), Human Rights Watch, the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund, Protect Education in Insecurity and Conflict, Save the Children International, the Scholars at Risk Network, UNHCR, and UNICEF.

TransConflict is an affiliated organization of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack.

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