Schooling in Crisis, Questioning Our Future

What happens to childhoods and schooling in conflict zones? Saswati Paik describes the catastrophic consequences. 

War post poter unicef

War, war everywhere

Numerous regional conflicts and wars are happening across the world. Everyone talks about regional conflicts and wars. Media highlights several immediate aspects of the conflict like missile attacks, casualties and atrocities, the territories and numbers of military personnel captured. There are also reports of wider problems of civilians fleeing across geopolitical borders. But who talks about the schools in those conflict zones?

What is happening to these children? Many of them might have left the world along with their parents, many of them might have lost their parents and family members, and those who are alive are losing their childhood, learning from their contexts and surroundings — learning from visible elements like fighting with others for survival, damaging others” for one’s survival.

After decades, when the present war zones calm down, we may take stock of human loss, property loss, economic loss, but who will take stock of the learning loss of the children? Who will evaluate what an entire generation of children witnessing horrible scenes of painful death, murder, attack, and bombing has learned during these years? Who will evaluate how these accidental learnings will impact the next generation of humans who experienced such trauma in their childhood? What will we do then? How will we repair this damage? Can we do that at all?

The young children, pre-teens and early teens, drew the police and army with guns. Many of them tried to show blood spots with red sketch pens, putting dots in red on white paper. They described their pictures later to our students stating that they have experienced these things in their childhood in their immediate surroundings. Many of them innocently stated that they would like to join the army and police to punish people who have killed their parents, relatives, and neighbours.

Disruption in schooling and childhood

Here are two scenarios here where schooling disruption is a common aspect.

Scenario 1: A few years back, some of our students from Azim Premji University went to the red-corridor zone of Chhattisgarh, where schools run in very difficult circumstances, the schooling process is uncertain, children face disruption in schooling due to armed conflicts. 

Our students asked the children of primary and upper primary schools to draw anything as per their choices on a piece of paper. The young children, pre-teens and early teens, drew the police and army with guns. Many of them tried to show blood spots with red sketch pens, putting dots in red on white paper. They described their pictures later to our students stating that they have experienced these things in their childhood in their immediate surroundings. Many of them innocently stated that they would like to join the army and police to punish people who have killed their parents, relatives, and neighbours.

Scenario 2: I met a few girls in one of the residential schools in Chhattisgarh. Their native states were Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. They used to stay here despite having very basic knowledge of the language, Hindi, which was the medium of instruction in their school. Their parents were apparently migrant labourers; they couldn’t send their daughters to any school in their own localities because of similar armed conflicts. They got to know about these schools and managed to admit their children here. The girls were quite clueless, they were uncertain about their schooling, because these residential schools were mainly dependent on the decisions of the local government. 

The surrounding area was full of army people, there was unknown tension and anxiety in the local environment. The teachers were all from outside this locality, they were not able to understand the language of the children enrolled in this school, and because of the uncertain situation in the locality, the teachers were keen to get a transfer from here. 

According to the teachers, many such children, once they visit their home, never return to the school. No one knows where they go and whether they continue their schooling anywhere else.

We may ignore such scenarios because these are not directly impacting most of us, whose children are privileged enough to get all kinds of facilities for schooling. But can we completely deny these issues? Can we guarantee that our so-called privileged children with good schooling background will never encounter children from such places who have already nurtured lots of hatred and anger towards privileged people?

A drawing by a school child in Chhattisgarh

The teachers were all from outside this locality, they were not able to understand the language of the children enrolled in this school, and because of the uncertain situation in the locality, the teachers were keen to get a transfer from here.

Schooling in armed conflict areas

Learning loss” is a popular topic of discussion post the pandemic when all nations started feeling the gap of learning due to unprecedented school closures during the pandemic. Such learning loss may lead to severe damage to the younger generation. However, human memories seem to be quite weak by nature. Either we forget about our crisis very quickly or we tend to ignore the crisis. 

Therefore, we humans have invited many crises through zonal and national-level wars within two years of overcoming the pandemic crisis. During this period we did not pay much serious attention to the crisis of our generational catastrophe due to the learning gap of children across the world. Whatever resources could have been spent for reconstructing nations, are now being largely spent on our man-made conflicts.

Today’s children will be future citizens, administrators of different nations, flag bearers in different development sectors. What they learn today matters. What they will apply tomorrow, will matter too. Our learning from life affects the application of our knowledge, skills, belief systems, etc. We can easily imagine what a set of children, suffering from their necessities now, may act like in the future. 

Hatred may give birth to more hatred, cruelty may lead to more cruelty, some belief systems may remain the same forever impacting the coming generations for many years. 

Schools are not the only source of children’s learning. But schools play an important role in children’s holistic development in various ways. Schools are not only academic spaces, they are also hubs of socialisation for children. Children do not only learn from teachers, they learn from each other as well.

Any disruption in the schooling process due to natural or man-made hazards leads to disruption in children’s lives in numerous ways. Home schooling is a luxury for many such children and a conducive learning environment at home and surroundings is also a dream. When natural or man-made calamities disrupt human lives, children get more traumatised than adults irrespective of socio-economic status. 

The scale and nature of trauma might be different for different classes and genders, but such trauma may surely lead to multiple challenges for many years. Are all the nations across the world ready to face those challenges?

A school building in Chhattisgarh destroyed during armed conflict

Can we guarantee that our so-called privileged children with good schooling background will never encounter children from such places who have already nurtured lots of hatred and anger towards privileged people?

Who is a global citizen today?

Local issues have a ripple effect on our larger society. When so-called privileged children of today become adult citizens, the world of adult citizens will consist of people having disrupted childhood too. Then history will repeat, and this repetition might be extremely violent and destructive even beyond our imagination. 

A research was conducted in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka between January and April 2001 that stated that Conflict has its greatest impact on the poorest communities in the poorest countries, and children and adolescents under age 18 are among the most severely affected in these communities” (Boyden et al., 2002). Is that impact only in terms of the learning gap in formal education? No, it’s much beyond that – which we tend to ignore.

The biggest crises are yet to come, the spirals have just been visible through regional unrests. The silence of the global and national agencies is quite disturbing. The harmful thoughts and belief systems are spreading like a fire. We humans are all tiny animals with all kinds of animal instincts on this huge planet. We all fight mainly because of two aspects: resources and power. Other aspects are all revolving around these two. At this point, we are not different from other animals. They also fight for resources (mainly food) and the power to grab those resources.

Conflict has its greatest impact on the poorest communities in the poorest countries, and children and adolescents under age 18 are among the most severely affected in these communities.

- Boyden et al., 2002

We tried to make a difference in our human world through formal education. But the present situation across the world indicates that our formal education has limited our sense of citizenship; we are all now born with a sense of only local or regional citizenship. 

The vision of global citizenship, ownership of and gratitude to the larger global community are largely deteriorating. It’s sad but indeed true that we, humans, are becoming insensitive to others, behaving with no sense of rationality. It’s a crisis of the entire human society where members are sheltered inside their regional shells with shells in their hands to destroy others. 

Our next generation does not deserve such a terrifying world around them; they must get a chance to behave more responsibly as global citizens. Who will ensure that and how? Our children are out of school, schools are either becoming shelters in the war zones or being destroyed because of war. Should we let our children get ready for the next generation’s wars and conflicts in this manner?

Reference

Boyden, J., De Berry, J., Feeny, T., & Hart, J. (2002). Children affected by armed conflict in South Asia: A review of trends and issues identified through secondary research. RSC Working Paper No. 7. Oxford: International Development Centre. https://www.rsc.ox.ac.uk/files/files‑1/wp7-children-affected-conflict-south-asia-2002.pdf

Special Acknowledgement

Vikas Shukla, Neha Nair, Chandan Singh, alumni of Azim Premji University and
Bachpan banao and Shiksharth, Chhattisgarh. 

Note

Poster image credit: 25 Years of Children and Armed Conflict | UNICEF
Source: UNICEF

About the Author

Saswati Paik teaches educational policies and school systems in MA in Education, Azim Premji University. She is a geographer and has keen interest of practising inter-disciplinary approaches in teaching and research.