16 Days Of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence: What’s Education Got To Do With It?

Today, Human Rights Day, is also the last day of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, an annual campaign running from November 25 to December 10. Last year, I wrote a blog post about the origins of this campaign and the gap between UN discourse and grassroots feminism. This year, I’ve written a longer post discussing the new campaign theme: Make Education Safe for All!

A new take on an old theme

Since 2011, the theme for the 16 Days Campaign has been From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence Against Women! Lasting four years, this was the longest-running theme in almost quarter of a century. Arguably, it helped sustain interest in the Women, Peace and Security agenda in the crucial period between the 10th anniversary of UNSCR 1325 and the High Level Review this October. Following on the heels of the High Level Review (which brought forth another Resolution – UNSCR 2242), this year’s theme was announced as From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Make Education Safe for All!  To me, this marks a step back from the focus on women as peacemakers in recent years. It also corresponds with civil society efforts to broaden the WPS agenda so that it is not just about getting women into peace processes (primarily as peace advocates) or seeking justice for women affected by conflict: it is also about realigning base values and engaging men and boys in building a gender-just peace from the bottom up.

Although women are absent from the slogan, the new campaign theme is in keeping with the broader aims and principles of feminist peacebuilding. While some feminists do support wars, feminist peacebuilders tend to agree that much of the money spent on war should be invested into areas such as health and education, on “books, not bullets,” as Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai says. There is near-universal agreement that education is one of the most crucial sites for tackling both gender-based violence and radicalisation among young people. These issues are often priorities for women’s organisations in conflict zones, and on the day-to-day level may eclipse the struggle for women’s political participation and their role in peace processes.


A mural in Italy depicting Malala Yousafzai. Photo credit: Nicholas Gemini, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

This last point is especially true in areas where (1) radicalisation of young men and women poses an imminent threat to social stability, (2) the state offers little or no purchase for women’s political participation or the Women, Peace and Security agenda, and (3) there is limited or no opportunity for women’s organisations to circumvent the state by appealing to international actors – I am thinking in particular of women I have met from the North Caucasus, though many women’s organisations in the South Caucasus value informal education and youth work as much as lobbying/advocacy, if not higher.

Some campaign statistics

Drawing on data from UNESCO, the official 16 Days Campaign press release highlights the negative consequences of war and militarism on education, especially for young women and girls:

“Recent data shows that approximately 38 million people are internally displaced worldwide, while 16.7 million are refugees. Girls and young women in particular are most adversely impacted by insecurity and crisis, with the most recent estimates showing that 31 million girls at primary level and 34 million at lower secondary level are not enrolled in school, and 15 million girls and 10 million boys will never see the inside of a classroom. As many as 58 million children of primary school age do not have access to education, with approximately half of these (28.5 million) living in conflict affected areas.”

It highlights reasons why young women and girls in these precarious situations can be denied a full education: the rising instances of early or forced marriages, the danger of sexual violence or forced abduction, institutional and structural barriers such as lack of adequate sanitary facilities.

The statement continues:

“In 2014, global military spending stood at $1.8 trillion, while experts cite a $26 billion financing gap to achieve basic education for all by end of 2015.”

In other words, what we spent on arms last year would have been enough to end lack of access to basic education, worldwide, almost 70 times over.

The challenge of this year’s campaign is not only to promote safe access to education for all, but to draw the link between militarism, conflict and unequal access to education for young women and girls. In the rest of this post, I focus on how this message might resonate with western feminists, and how it pushes us to reconsider the relationship between the universal and the particular.

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