- The Washington Times - Friday, November 21, 2008




I have seen much change in Northern Ireland in the 32 years since I won the Nobel Peace Prize, yet some things remain the same. I still see wars raging around the world, and children suffering from the effects of conflicts started by adults.

Recently, I joined 30 other Nobel Peace Prize laureates as part of a Save the Children global initiative tocall for urgent action to implement quality education in all conflict-affected countries. We hope this joint appeal will encourage the world to listen to our important message that education can promote peace.

After almost 40 years of conflict in Northern Ireland, a country with deep ethnic and political divisions, the cycle of violence has been broken. This opens the way to rebuilding a new and changed society. I recently visited an integrated school where both Catholics and Protestants attend together, and it highlighted to me the importance of education in rebuilding a more peaceful society.

The current situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo shows how children can become trapped in a cycle of conflict. Can you imagine a child living in a country where conflict rages, who doesn’t know how to read, who doesn’t know how to write, who has no skills to cope with life and no hope? Imagine the frustration that child would feel. Without education, children are also more vulnerable to exploitation and recruitment into armed groups. Without education, children are denied the opportunity to rebuild their future and break the cycle of conflict and poverty.

There are more than 300,000 refugees in North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and their situation will not change when the news reporters move on. The average stay in a refugee camp is 17 years, the length of a childhood. How can we justify children born into this situation being denied the same right to education as children anywhere in the world?

The old adage “education is easy carried” is so true. It provides a sense of dignity and confidence and a feeling of control and ownership of one’s own life. Lack of education can lead to anger, violence and a sense of alienation — a society storing up problems for the future.

Yet providing education to children living in conflict-affected countries often falls to the bottom of the list of priorities. Many governments think it is just too difficult. I believe world leaders and armed groups must recognize that children have a right to education, they have a right to their childhood, they have a right to peace.

It has been nearly two decades since the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was signed by almost every country. (The United States has signed the convention, but Congress has not yet ratified it.) World leaders have more recently made promises in the form of the Millennium Development Goals — committing to provide education for all children by 2015. Yet 72 million children remain out of school and more than half — 37 million — are affected by conflict. Where is the conviction to uphold this U.N. Convention? We need it to be taken seriously.

An important opportunity to improve education systems and help foster peace is during peace processes. When parties to a conflict are engaged in a peace process there is a rare opportunity to agree on a shared new education blueprint for the country. Yet nearly one-third of peace agreements make no mention of education at all, and those that do often don’t define the type of quality education required to rebuild a society. To break the cycle of conflict, education needs to be an integral part of every peace process.

What is more, we need governments to back up their promises that education can be provided to every child. There is plenty of money in the world, as we have seen by governments’ reactions to the economic crisis, but we need to prioritize education. What’s missing is the political will on behalf of our governments to adjust their policies and priorities and start taking care of children.

In the past, when we thought of human security, we thought of armies, we thought of nuclear weapons and war — we are now beginning to realize human security is about education, it’s about health care, it’s about people having the basic things that help them to lead dignified, good, human lives.

“Education, education, education” — these were the words children in a Nairobi primary school sang to me just before the outbreak of conflict and unrest in Kenya, following the elections in December last year. With conflicts increasing around the world, these three words should take on a new importance — giving children hope and protection and helping to create more peaceful societies of the future.

Mairead Corrigan Maguire, who lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 and is chair of the Women’s Nobel Group.

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