Education and Conflict
Kendra Dupuy asks how civil war affects education, and whether a focus on schools can lead to more sustainable peace.
How does conflict affect education?
How does education affect conflict?

Questions like these can sometimes prove resistant to easy answers, but nonetheless shed light on patterns that affect the ways children learn during wartime. Or how they are appropriated and used for conflict purposes.
When people use fancy words like 'causal mechanisms', Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) senior researcher Kendra Dupuy tells us, they're really just talking about chickens and eggs. And when we talk about education and war, especially civil war, the conversation often orbits around a simple-seeming question: what comes first? Which one affects the other, and how?

Attempts at unpacking this question lies at the core of our seminar today. And to start it might be good to look at some terms:
Causal Mechanism
The factor causing the phenomenon or process that we are observing (the 'doer' or 'cause').

Conditioning Variable
The factor that creates the context needed for something else to happen (the 'context' or 'background work').
Intervening Variable
This factor might not be causal, but it can affect the duration or intensity of another factor.

So when we ask whether 'education affects conflict', we're trying to figure out if its a causal, conditioning or intervening factor. As with our other discussions on causes of armed conflicts (also delivered by Dupuy), we're not only talking about academic or historical facts. If we can understand why people pick up guns, maybe there are things we can do to make that outcome less likely.

Unfortunately, everything in this line of research is about probability. Poverty and oil make war more likely, but war doesn't break out in every poor, resource-rich location. So a lot of this is like being a weather forecaster, and researchers are constantly trying to update their models to make them more likely to predict conflict.

The first thing we need to think about when examining how education affects conflict, we need to start with some of the more basic connections between the two.

Some of the more obvious factors are that, when there's a civil war, students might not be able to go to school. They could join or be coerced into joining rebel groups. Or schools could be co-opted by rebels as bases, defense posts or even spaces for indoctrination. Speaking of which, in polarized and segregated societies schools are often used as a socializing factor that spreads conflict-promoting narratives.

It should be mentioned that we're speaking about education here in terms of formal schooling, as in institutionalized education as provided by the state. A formal education system is a mass schooling system which is regulated, financed and provided (in theory) as a universal public service to all citizens by the state, presumably on an equal basis.

This kind of schooling takes place in specially constructed buildings for a certain number of hours a day over the course of many days during the year. There can be regulated private schools, with or without state funding. This model started small, relatively recently (in Prussia three hundred years ago) and then spread like wildfire. Today it's relatively standardized.

It's also believed, and strongly, that education like this has a pacifying effect.

Schools In Wartime

The preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO says that "since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed." Gendered language aside, this is a call to use education as a broad tool to promote peace within and between societies.

If we look at states with a more highly-education population, these are countries that generally are at peace (at least within their own borders), while poor states consistently have more children out of school. This is one factor that researchers have analyzed in hopes of finding out more about how education and war can be related.

But this doesn't necessarily mean that "less education means more war." It could just as much speak to how conflicts affect school systems and make it harder for children and teens to complete their education. There's a negative effect on both enrollment and attainment.

The data seems to confirm that the countries with the most kids out of school are often ones that deal with outbreaks of new or ongoing conflict. 72% of children in Sudan aren't in school, as are 50% of children in Chad and 46% in Afghanistan.

These include families of forced migrants: it is estimated that only 61% of refugee children attend primary school.

In terms of how conflicts interfere with education, the physical infrastructure can be quite literally destroyed. This includes buildings, books, materials, technology and other things. But not only that, teachers can decide it's not safe to stay and teach, as might other school staff. Or students might not come, either out of safety concerns or other factors.

That, and people are killed. Less people means that less learning happens.

There are also psychological effects stemming from conflict. A very large percent of kids living in Syria, for example, are seriously traumatized and this can affect their decision to go or not go to school. That, and even if they do go, trauma can lead to poor performance.

Kids might be prevented from going to school for economic reasons as well: industry stops, farming stops, people can enter deeper levels of poverty and so children might be sent to work or find food for their families. Kids in rural areas might get left behind in situations where, because of resource shortage, more attention is paid to populations living in cities as compared to in the countryside or in villages.

There's also the contested thought that, in wartime, money that typically goes to education gets funnelled into the war effort instead. That, and resources can get appropriated by other groups: schools were found to be used for military purposes in 28 countries by both state and non-state actors.

Sometimes schools are attacked for what they teach. For certain groups, non-traditional curriculums can be seen as threatening or imposed by powerful outsiders or elites. Some schools get attacked because they teach girls.

And speaking of gender, girls and boys can sometimes be equally affected, but sometimes one more than the other. As mentioned above, some schools (like in Afghanistan) become closed to girls. In many places where there is civil war, boys and teens can be taken away and used as child soldiers.

Country Statistics

In the Central African Republic (CAR), only 34% of girls go to school. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), 64% of girls go to school. The gap between educated boys and girls in Pakistan is 14%, and in Afghanistan it's 28%. These are neighbouring countries but there are big differences. It has to be kept in mind, though that these are national averages that don't give us regional pictures. There may be regions that are significantly worse.

Non-state systems can step up to fill in the gap: in the DRC there are networks of Catholic churches and schools that provide education.

Researchers who looked at pre-genocide Rwanda saw that there was a probability decline of 17% for boys going to school between 1971-1986, particularly through forced displacement among other things. This left a lot of young men without something to do, and some believe that this can aid people in mobilizing violent forces. Even though the genocide affected both boys and girls, boys were 15% less likely to complete third or forth grade

In Tajikistan, girls were more affected by the conflict. If they lived in affected regions they were less likely to enroll in and complete their mandatory schooling than girls of the same age who lived in unaffected regions. This also had a major impact on wages later in life. Also, education may have been doubtful in terms of what the benefits were. So it might not have been considered valuable to send girls to school as compared to marrying them off.

In the DRC, poor girls are three times less likely to go to school for more than two years, and this is still than for boys. In Northern Uganda, violent conflict doubles the risk of extreme education poverty for girls from the poorest households.

In Afghanistan, girls' schools are more attacked than boys, leading to an 11% decline in attendance. There's also an understandable, corresponding lack of female teachers.

In Guatemala, on the other hand older girls lost more years of schooling but for some reason they bounced back after the conflict ended.

In refugee camps, there are 8 girls for every 10 boys in primary school. There are 4 for every 10 in Pakistan, and the rates are even lower for secondary school.

There are issues of boys being taken for child soldiers – often when we talk about gender issues we refer to girls, but boys are disproportionately affected by conflict in a very concrete way. Particularly when there are rebels involved and there are strict, traditional gender norms. In Latin America we see a lot of women fighters, but in Africa, Asia and the Middle-East we still see a lot of boys encouraged to fight.

There are some places that deliberately don't give education to people in refugee camps, like the Rohingya in Bangladesh fleeing violence in Myanmar. There's a government policy denying them places in high school, so there's an entire generation of kids that won't be getting education. It's the same thing in Jordan, where they don't let Syrian kids in refugee camps go to school and whatnot. It's been suggested that they don't want people getting too comfortable in the camps that they don't want to leave.

Places like Nepal and Eritrea had gender-related issues as part of why the rebels said they rebelled, and some post-conflict arrangements try to address gender inequality or issues in education. In Sierra Leone, for example, there were only 20% of girls in schools at one time but, when they eliminated financial barriers, it increased to 40%.

One in six kids live in an area affected by armed conflict.

Education As Intervention

In terms of what governments do in response, some provide subsidies for girls, or offer free education. Gendered issues (affecting girls and boys) can be addressed, even as part of the curriculum. Targeted education programs can be initiated to help kids from particularly conflict-ridden zones. School lunch programs can attract people to come, as can offering 'flexschools' that work around domestic or other duties. Providing childcare can also help.

But while these are ways to address how conflict has interrupted education, some researchers wonder if by shoring up school systems we can make certain societies less likely to be affected by future violent conflicts. Or that future conflicts would be less intense.

Going back to perceptions of how education affects the likelihood of conflict or not, a number of myths exist. There's a thought that fights are exclusively started by people who are uneducated, or that if you educate everybody then no one will start any more wars. While there are connections between less-educated populations and conflict, as mentioned above, in cases of terrorism the perpetrators are often very, very educated.

If you think about it, in some cases education might even make tensions worse. Think about what kinds of histories are taught in schools, especially if history encourages people to support the grievances of their own ethnic or religious group. Schools can also be segregated and can foment hatred or misunderstanding. Who does or does not have access to secondary school or university can also matter – maybe all the elites go to the same place and build connections, making it harder for people outside the system to be represented or included in political decision making.

When it comes to restricted access (or lack of access generally) to education, there's a theory that says the amount of boys in secondary school is a factor that can directly contribute to whether or not a conflict might break out. But it's not only about whether or not boys or young men are engaged in school: not having opportunities for a livelihood after being educated can lead to dissatisfaction and tension. This is a factor often attributed to the Arab Spring.

There are a lot of rebel groups who try to step in where governments fail – think of the Islamic State's educational system, as one example. Rebels in Sierra Leone also did this, and thus brought children up into their worldview and made an effective pipeline to their armed bands. Some rebel groups destroy schools and tell folks that since they don't have anything better to do, why not join them?

Political exclusion is often named as a factor in conflict, and it can start at the level of curriculum. If you can't study in your own language, you might start forming a grievance against the state. Or you might try to push for reforms. And sometimes the curriculum, even in the same country, is different in different languages. Serbs and Croats who study history in Eastern Croatia do so with different textbooks, ones that some claim transmit conflict-based stereotypes. When researchers talk about how knowledge is political, like Bruno Oliveira Martins in yesterday's seminar, this can be what they mean.

There's an argument some make called the 'contact' thesis, and that's the idea that if you're put in contact with different types of people on a regular basis then you'll start learning tolerance or acceptance. Some say this really happens, but others say this just leads to playground fights or worse. Other issues can include the abuse of kids by teachers, especially if the kids are part of a marginalized group. Or teachers sometimes campaigning openly for office in their classes, or using the class to indoctrinate students in a particular ideology.

Then there are all the issues of 'hidden curriculums.' Think of all the hidden, unwritten rules of a classroom. Who gets called upon. How certain people are treated (either better or worse). Military-style drills in different classes, pictures of leaders on the wall. What questions are discouraged (or encouraged). Whether or not students are encouraged to think critically or just accept information passively.

So it's a mixed subject.

When researchers try to look for causal mechanisms for education leading to peace, they're often using it as a proxy for state strength and inclusion, both of which are factors in conflict onset. When talking about psychological arguments, these are described as relating to whether or not you feel included, whether you have grievances that are reproduced in schools (either by sympathetic teachers feeding your grievances or hostile teachers who seem to 'prove' them), and then structures of socialization or critical thinking.

Then there are some who say that the more educated you are, the more successful you become and so the costs involved in picking up a gun grow higher.

But these are all still under research. They do, however, provide compelling directions for ongoing questions, studies and reports.
Kendra Dupuy was a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) until 2019. She now works for Norwegian People's Aid.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and peacebuilding practitioner.
He studied at PRIO in 2018.
Banner photo by USAID on PIXNIO
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Further Reading
The Effect Of Civil War On Education, 1980–97
Lai, B. & Thyne, C. (2007).
Journal of Peace Research, 44, 277–292
ABC's, 123's and The Golden Rule:
The Pacifying Effect Of Education On Civil War, 1980–1999.
Thyne, C. (2006).
International Studies Quarterly, 50, 733–754.