The role of education in preventing war and sexual violence

This April marked the centenary celebration of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), an occasion on which Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebaadi took the opportunity to remind the world of the importance of education. She said, “If books had been thrown at the Taliban instead of bombs, and had schools been built in Afghanistan – 4,000 could have been built in memory of the 4,000 people who died in 9/11 – at this time we would not have ISIS.”

The spectre of the Taliban and ISIS is a significant one in the mission to end sexual violence, with the former being notorious in its banning of girls from schools and education, and the latter having committed the most recent acts of sexual abuse and violence in the conflicted territories controlled by them. In fact, an infamous cartoon following the shooting of Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban made this realisation painfully clear – what terrifies extremists is not bullets or bombs, but a girl with a book.

Knowledge, books, and education have manifold implications when it comes to dealing with conflict and sexual violence – they embody curiosity, independent thought, freedom of speech and expression, and the potential to eventually make up one’s own mind about the world, its events, and its people. A holistic approach to education, or one that goes beyond the teaching of literacy and numeracy, also educates students on current affairs, creative expression, lateral thinking, structured argument and debate. This subsequently gives them the ability to make independent decisions, the freedom to make a difference, and to become young leaders in their own right. This is all the more important in the case of sexual violence in conflict, which does not affect individuals and societies based on their educational standards, but has long survived in impunity in spite of it. Armed groups and militants, religious extremists, and even child soldiers have often been radicalised and forced to commit acts of sexual violence instead of being provided with a school, books, and playmates, resorting to sexual abuse and violence when they learn to live with war and accept such behaviour as a by-product.

The relationship between education, armed conflict, and the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war becomes even more problematic in light of the total global military expenditure in 2014 - $1.8 trillion according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. It is easier to imagine a world in which such money is spent on arms and military than to envisage one in which a similar amount may be spent on building schools and developing education during times of communal, religious, or international strife, as opposed to upping the national defence spending, producing missiles and fine-tuning nuclear capabilities, or bombing rogue nations into hopefully becoming better team-players in international politics in the future.

Anthony Keedi of Abaad – Resource Center for Gender Equality, used his platform at The Hague on the 100th anniversary of WILPF to highlight the importance of engaging men and boys in reducing incidents of war and preventing sexual violence in conflict. He commented that men tend to be conditioned into thinking that violence is natural, whereas it is in reality, always a choice. Stoicism and indifference are emphasised as opposed to empathy and vulnerability. Indeed, if our education systems are failing to generate emotional intelligence and comfort with a spectrum of feelings, thoughts, and emotions among all genders, then we are clearly failing to nurture the idea of peace as a default state of existence.

An issue that also often gets overlooked, as Secretary General of WlLPF Madeline Rees indicated, is that “Our default position is intervention,” or more violence as a means to end existing violence. To assume that one form of violence is somehow more justified or less horrific also explains the comparatively minor discussion space given to sexual violence that occurs within the armed forces itself, or the blind eye turned towards acts of violence committed towards those whom we seek to protect through our interventions. Reports of torture, abuse, and unlawful killings have been rife throughout the history of most nations’ armed forces, while those of sexual abuse and violence are considerably less talked of, often until and unless used to discourage women’s participation in defence and security.

Overall, the complex history between war and human civilisation itself means that the issue is unlikely to disappear overnight. This is precisely where education comes into play for it is a driving force that can affect change over multiple years and several generations. We have finally made huge leaps in ending the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, but it is has been clear for a long time that such abuses of power are only an exaggerated display of the crimes that occur during peace time. Education is a vital necessity at all times, and to give it the focus and investment it deserves in peace, conflict, or post-conflict is to ensure that the next big leap in ending conflict and conflict-related crimes is not too far off in the horizon.

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