Linking Health and Education in Humanitarian Action to Prevent and Respond to Violence Against Children

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Schools provide a unique setting for violence prevention initiatives, yet an estimated 246 million girls and boys globally continue to experience some form of violence in and around schools. With the global pandemic, many existing violence prevention initiatives within schools and School Health Services (SHS) were disrupted and as children begin to return to school, there needs to be an integrated effort to build safer and healthier learning environments where all girls and boys can learn and thrive. Furthermore, schools in emergency settings experience additional challenges in providing safe learning environments and school-based health services for girls and boys.

On 11 April, the Geneva Global Hub for Education in Emergencies, the World Health Organization (WHO), the Safe to Learn Global Initiative, and the Aga Khan Foundation held a webinar to disentangle the role of the health sector in preventing and responding to violence against children, as well as promote dialogue and knowledge sharing between the education, health and emergencies sectors. More than 500 participants registered for the event. The convening showed how likeminded and complementary initiatives and organizations can join forces to make a multi-sectoral response to violence against children tangible and effective.

For more than two decades, the WHO has been leading on both violence prevention and providing health services for all children in schools. They lead critical initiatives such as conducting the School-based Student Health Survey (GSHS) in countries around the world and making every school a health-promoting school.

“Some of the things we see in terms of why schools play such an important role in violence prevention are, firstly, that participation in organised activities, and creating a safe and enabling school environment are essential,” said Sabine Rakotomalala, Technical Officer, Violence Prevention Unit of the Department for the Social Determinants of Health (SDH), World Health Organization. “Secondly, schools are a really good place to implement activities aimed at preventing violence against children. And finally, schools can play a key role in challenging harmful social norms.”

According to WHO Adolescent Health Lead Valentina Baltag: “No education system can be successful if it does not promote the health and wellbeing of learners,” she said. “But when looking at most urgent needs, there is a gap between where the problems are and what the services are providing.”

This may be due to the unavailability and under-utilization of child-centred data

“Data collection among children can be done fairly inexpensively using school settings,” said Lubna Bhatti – WHO technical lead on population-based NCD surveys. “WHO has been collecting excellent quality youth data on risk factors including violence for almost two decades through GSHS – using standardised questions and methodology. However, data collection depends on schools being open. We have faced such challenges in countries facing conflicts and more recently during the COVID-19 pandemic, and marginalised groups everywhere are less likely to be enrolled in schools.”

Aga Khan Foundation’s Global Lead in Education and ECD, Nafisa Shekhova agreed and emphasised the key role of local leadership. “If we are asking why girls are not going to school, for example, what is happening in the community is very important. Community consultation is needed. Community leadership has to be there. In many places, buy-in from community leadership – including religious leadership – is what will allow anything to happen. But what works in one place won’t work in the next. It’s essential to use flexible approaches that enable you to assess particular challenges, and respond to them.”

We must continue integrating health and education interventions, especially in crisis situations, displacement and anticipatory action.

“Linking the learning agenda, health and violence prevention is not an add-on,” said Chloë Fèvre, Director of the Safe to Learn Global Initiative. “It is part of critical efforts to enable children to learn and develop. This is the message we are trying to push forward with the education sector worldwide.”

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