Education under threat for youth in eastern Ukraine
More than six years of armed conflict in eastern Ukraine has led to a chaotic and fragmented educational system and had a profound impact on the well-being of the nearly 670,000 school-aged children living in the region. The global COVID-19 pandemic has further compounded these problems. A recently issued report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine on attacks on education sheds light on the challenges that youth in eastern Ukraine face in accessing education amid the ongoing armed conflict and health crisis.
Since the start of the conflict in 2014, the fundamental human right to education of children in eastern Ukraine has been under threat. Shelling and small-arms fire has damaged schools and other key civilian infrastructure. According to the OSCE report, since 2015, 93 educational facilities have been damaged in more than 40 settlements across Luhanska and Donetska oblasts, resulting in nine casualties, including three fatalities. Between January 2016 and March 2020, over a dozen children were killed and over 55 were injured by landmines and explosive devices. This constant exposure to violence, combined with the stress associated with the economic downturn and the recent pandemic, poses long-term threats to both youth and educators.
Students living in settlements close to the ‘contact line’ have had the most difficulty accessing schools. Class attendance has been disrupted by physical attacks on schools, weak transport links, COVID-19-related restrictions and the physical barrier of the ‘contact line’, which separates some schools from the communities they historically served. Even before the imposition of COVID-19 restrictions, school closures were a common occurrence, with some schools closed for months or indefinitely after being repeatedly damaged by shelling. Although, according to the Ukraine Education Cluster, some 400 educational facilities received aid between January 2017 and June 2019 to repair conflict-related damage, it has been difficult for schools located within close proximity to the ‘contact line’ to secure funds due to the likelihood that they will be damaged again. This has resulted in some schools being shut down, with children having to travel further distances to access education.
Already prior to the pandemic, the lack of transportation in rural, isolated communities along the ‘contact line’ posed challenges for children in eastern Ukraine to attend school. In 2019, some 5,000 children from non-Government controlled areas (NGCA) were enrolled in distance learning as a result of school closures and mobility restrictions. This figure has likely risen during the last quarter of the 2020 school year due to the constraints on movement imposed by the health crisis. Although schools in conflict-affected areas have resumed in-person teaching this September, the number of new COVID-19 cases has doubled in the past month in Government-controlled areas (GCA), indicating that schools might need to return to distance learning. More than half of children residing close to the ‘contact line’ were left without adequate access to education during quarantine due to the introduction of remote learning arrangements because they lacked equipment or internet access.
In addition to the physical impacts of the conflict, children and educators alike have been affected psychologically. In a UNICEF report on the situation of children living near the 'contact line', over three-quarters of school directors and teachers interviewed in areas near the 'contact line' noted strong behavioral changes in students since the beginning of the conflict. In heavily shelled districts in particular, numerous children show symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder. UNICEF estimates that some 430,000 children live with psychological wounds and need ongoing support to address the emotional trauma of growing up in a prolonged conflict. An alarming 22.5 percent of adolescents in Donetska and Luhanska oblasts are at risk of developing clinical levels of internalizing or externalizing problems in adulthood. The deteriorating economic situation in the region has also contributed to feelings of anxiety and insecurity among many families. Despite these concerns, according to the report from the OSCE, 80 per cent of schools visited by the SMM in 2018 and 2019 had no psychologists on staff. Although psychological support is often available through humanitarian actors in GCA, access is limited in NGCA.
The conflict has not only disrupted children’s present reality in eastern Ukraine, but their futures too. Education can be a lifeline for children growing up surrounded by violence and a building block to a more stable and peaceful society. Yet, the psychological impacts of the conflict and barriers to accessing education are threatening to compromise the well-being and future of an entire generation. As the new school year begins, humanitarian actors in eastern Ukraine continue to find ways to ensure that children can access their basic right to education while preventing the transmission of the virus. The recently announced ceasefire, if proved sustainable, presents a window of opportunity to repair schools damaged by the conflict, and brings renewed hope for children to be able to learn in a more safe and secure environment.