The United Nations International Day of Peace is this Saturday, 21st September. This year’s theme is Education for Peace.

 “It is not enough to teach children how to read, write and count. Education has to cultivate mutual respect for others and the world in which we live, and help people forge more just, inclusive and peaceful societies.”

UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon

ChildFund New Zealand’s Asia Programmes Manager Sally Hewlett has worked closely with communities in post-conflict situations and completed her master’s thesis on the role of education in peace-building. We asked Sally about the role of education in building peace and her experience working with teachers and children.

Why is education important to peace?

As Ban Ki-moon says, education is not just about learning facts and passing exams. It is a process of learning socialisation, critical questioning and listening skills – all of which are absolutely necessary tools for a society wishing to live in a peaceful way.

Through education, children learn to become adults who are tolerant, understanding of ways of thinking that may be different to their own and recognise both their rights and responsibilities of being a local and global citizen.

When did you realise that education and peace were inextricably linked?

I remember a conversation with a mother in a kindergarten in a Palestinian Camp in Lebanon. She was talking about how hopeless everyone felt about the chance of getting work after finishing school, and now, generations after being refugees, seeing how impossible it was.

She said she continues to push her children to try hard in school, to feel proud of their achievements and question their thinking. She does this as she knows that they are the ones who will need to keep pushing for a better tomorrow, and to do this they need to know how to question and how to listen.

Education in post-conflict Sri Lanka

International Peace Day focuses on ‘peace building’ rather than ‘peacemaking’ or ‘peacekeeping’. What is peace building?

Peace building looks at the long-term – which is ensuring communities are stable, safe and have a low chance of falling back into a state of conflict. It is a place where people’s rights are respected, and sustainable foundations for peace are laid and continually built upon.  Peacemaking is focused on just achieving the absence of violence, whereas ‘peace building’ is longer-term, and builds harmony and co-operation.

How does education support peace building?

Education is central to peace building – if done in the right way.

Schools are a good space to promote volunteerism, community spirit and wider social cohesion. Schools provide a routine for children; discipline and a safe place to test out ideas and critical thought. Education is necessary to know how to learn, and what tools are needed in different situations in order to negotiate the best outcome. It is much more than finding future employment.

Much of ChildFund’s work is in the peace building phase, especially in the countries I oversee.

In Sri Lanka, there is still much work to be done to help build up the communities still feeling the effects of prior conflict; to find a place of ongoing peacefulness, with a just and stable future. Activities that help in long-term peace building that we undertake are strengthening the schools by creating strong Boards of Management, giving kids who are lagging behind extra tuition to catch up, and providing teachers with up-to-date teaching approaches that help the kids learn faster and better.

Timor Leste is still in the infancy of the peace building phase, and ChildFund’s work with Early Childhood Development is establishing the foundations for peace for a very young, largely uneducated population who greatly need this start in order to build a long lasting peaceful and democratic nation.

Education combines with the political, social and economic sectors and has a significant contribution into this process. It builds tolerance, peace and understanding between and of peoples – as long as it is done in the right way.

Education provides a space for children to deal with past conflict, but also for teachers, parents and the wider community – if approached in an inclusive and sensitive manner. This is exactly the way that ChildFund approaches its education projects in post conflict settings, to build lasting peace.

Sally having fun with children in Timor-Leste

What inspiring teachers have you met in your work?

So many! I think one teacher who inspired me was Vanessa Te Huia from ChildFund’s Global Schools group (Global Schools was an interchange programme between teachers in New Zealand and Zambia that focused on child-centred teaching and learning techniques). Vanessa has a presence in a room that was transferable from intermediate kids in Rotorua to rural kids in Zambia. She never raised her voice to disruptive students, but rather gave them the option to not participate – and they all wanted to participate.

She created a classroom with complementary activities happening, that culminated in whole group learning, but kept all students engaged. She rewarded those who learned with showing the others how they did it. I could see the kids in her class copying her techniques for helping others, settling disputes and complementing others who did well. These are such incredible tools to take out into wider life.

Your Master’s thesis was on the role of education in peace building. How would you sum up the results of your research?

From my thesis: “Education in a post conflict setting is core to the process of building peace. Not only is education a great forum through which to which to help build trust, tolerance and understanding in such communities, it has to be recognised as a pivotal part of the process. Furthermore, the absence of education can prove dangerous in exacerbating tensions or reigniting conflict.”

I think my research reinforced the idea of how important education is – but also that the WHY and the WHAT of education is important too.

I’ve worked from kindergarten to adult education and all in between. I’ve worked with children with disabilities in the middle of IDP camps in Sudan, and privileged kids in downtown Tokyo.

Whatever the situation is, I think the core of education is the same – enabling children to develop into productive and tolerant adults, broadening minds; teaching skills to better understand the world around them and advocate for change if necessary.

There are many examples of inspiring teachers and children, and when you see education – at all levels and ages – working well, you know the transformative effect it can have.

For further information on Peace Day 2013, visit the UN’s site http://www.internationaldayofpeace.org/

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