The role of education in protecting children in conflict

by Susan Nicolai and Carl TriplehornMarch 2003

Wars deprive millions of children of an education, yet education in emergencies has not traditionally occupied a prominent place in humanitarian thinking. No one dies from not going to school, and other life-threatening needs – for food, water, shelter or healthcare – can at first glance seem more pressing. Amid conflict and crisis, education programming has been viewed as a luxury, and a task best left to the development community.

This paper argues for a reappraisal of the position of education in emergency programming. It explores the links between education and the wider protection needs of the children it assists. It suggests that, as protection in conflict emerges more clearly as a legitimate humanitarian concern, so the role of education as a tool of protection must be more clearly understood. How does conflict affect a child’s education, and what impact does this have on an affected individual’s social or cognitive development? In what ways can education enhance the physical and psychosocial protection of children in war-affected or displaced communities? What risks does education programming in these contested environments present, for children and for agencies themselves? What is currently being done, and how could it be done better?

This paper does not offer definitive answers to these questions. Education in emergencies is a young area; the evidence of its impact is often anecdotal, and although its status as a humanitarian concern has gained legitimacy in recent years, it has yet to be accepted across the humanitarian community. Much more needs to be done to enhance our understanding of the links between education and child protection in emergency situations.